Apparently Necessary Comments About the Wage Gap and Sexism

The wage gap is an issue that is now becoming a central political issue. Bernie Sanders made it an issue, as did Hillary Clinton. (And both campaigns were accused of hypocrisy on the issue). Obama made it a priority to try to address, with new regulations to empower the EEOC. I myself have had to talk to people ranging from outright anti-feminists to brogressives to correct a lot of the sheer misinformation on the issue.

It doesn’t take a sociology degree to understand that women aren’t being paid the same as men for a variety of reasons, some of which are benign, some of which are an injustice but aren’t especially sexist or malicious, and some of which result from sexism. Nor does it take an advanced education for people to understand the difference between subconscious bias, where someone acts in a way that is biased against women but isn’t doing it deliberately or with ill intent, and overt discriminatory behavior, where one deliberately hates or looks down on women. The only reason this discussion becomes as heated as it does is because there is a tremendous amount of socialization out there to try to make people arbitrarily defensive.

And so, feminists find themselves having to say obvious things quite a lot of the time. Hopefully, for those of you who engage with friends, family members, acquaintances, or random people on the Internet, this will be a resource for you.

Let’s get the initial points out of the way: No, the wage gap is not a myth. Yes, it is real, and yes, it is caused by sexism. People who want to duck around this issue try to claim that women are paid differently because of everything from seniority to occupational difference, as if the only way we know that the wage gap is caused by sexism is that we looked at men and women earning different amounts and just assumed it was. There are dozens of directly sexist barriers that make women and men earn different amounts. These include pink-collar spatial segregation, where businesses that tend to employ women take advantage of the geographies that women tend to live in; the second shift, wherein women spend more time at home even if their partner isn’t actually working that much than them due to a variety of social expectations, leading them to need more flexible hours, more “family-friendly” workplaces, and to trigger discrimination against mothers and those who might become mothers (even for those women who are infertile or have no plan of having a child); the “old boy’s club”, where women just don’t have the same access to references that can get them up the ladder (and those women who do succeed compensate extensively for that deficit); and the simple and clear reality of various forms of subconscious and implicit biases. I’ll simply quote from Davison and Burke, who say that, “This targeted form of prejudice is consistent with the generally more favorable evaluation of women than men obtained in attitude and stereotype studies because this positive evaluation derives primarily from the ascription to women of nice, nurturant, communal characteristics, which people think qualify individuals for the domestic role as well as for low-status, low-paying female-dominated job”. Even the business press, which obviously tends to lean right-wing and often strives to find excuses for anything corporations might do, often is able to admit many of these factors are real.

I challenge anyone reading this to find a source that tried to debunk the wage gap that even bothers to discuss any of these issues. Christina Hoff Sommers sure hasn’t in every single editorial of hers I’ve read, nor in her videos on the topic. This may indeed be the issue where anti-feminists are the most dishonest.

Moreover, many of the supposed reasons why men should make more money than women have been debunked. For example: The danger pay premium, the idea that men make more money because their jobs are more dangerous, doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. Are CEOs dodging bullets? In fact, some of our most dangerous jobs in society are the least well-paid. And the idea that women face no danger on the job ignores the very serious reality that women, often on the bottom rung of organizational ladders and often in support personnel, experience tremendous violence on the job. Similarly, while it is true that women could do better at negotiation, it’s also true that men are often very bad at listening to women, such that strategies that might work for men to negotiate better salaries don’t work for women.

And the misunderstanding on this issue is routinely deep and it’s often deliberate. So, for example, when we discuss the “mommy track”, those who want to deny the pernicious impact of the wage gap often say “Well, why should an employer pay someone who is a less reliable worker as much as someone else who is more reliable?!” Putting aside that the employer’s very ongoing existence depends on a society that procreates, so we as a society should make sure not to outright penalize the already-significant sacrifices inherent to incompetent childrearing, men make choices to have babies too, and yet they don’t endure a substantial penalty for that choice. The injustice isn’t just that there’s a mommy track: it’s that there’s not a daddy track. And the stigma of the mommy track can harm even women who don’t intend to have children.

To drive home the point, let’s just consider the case of social workers and teachers. Does anyone seriously doubt that either of these groups are underpaid? Aside from people so far ensconced in right-wing ideology that they would rather entertain conspiracies of evil teacher’s unions, no. But since both positions are disproportionately staffed by women, that will obviously have an effect on women. The fact is that women tend to cluster in an array of lower-paid service positions. But to pretend that that happened naturally, and isn’t discrimination (as one is doing when one follows conservative dictum and “controls” for variables by comparing apples to apples), is laughable.

So, with all of this evidence, what are the most common objections I hear?

Surprisingly, aside from people just saying they’re not convinced or that I’m just citing Marxist academics, I hear an array of arguments that are simply irrelevant nonsense. I hear “You’re just whining”, “Stop blaming men!”, and “When will you feminists stop being out for blood?” So I am put in the position of saying some things that, frankly, shouldn’t need to be said.

Men Aren’t Bad Guys

The above description, long as it was (and yet still introductory), was necessary to point out that, no, none of this is about blaming men as some amorphous mass or vile conspiracy. In fact, in lots of cases, it’s women who are discriminating against fellow women, because that’s how sexism and injustice tend to work: they’re systemic, not based on individual bad people or some kind of collective “original sin”-like animus that one group has against another.

It’s not a conspiracy when a hurried human resources professional, going through fifty applications, chooses to call back the white men because she just “feels better” about those white men thanks to the subconscious stereotypes of a society that have presented white men as the gold standard for competence. It’s also not a conspiracy when a group of people, looking over fifteen applicants that they interviewed, remember the men as being more assertive and confident and the women as less so. Unless the interviews are taped, the fact that they’re probably misremembering thanks to psychological schema won’t ever be perceived.

It’s not a conspiracy when an employer looks at an employee whose credentials seem to be great but who just doesn’t have any references the person knows directly and views them as too big a risk.

Of course, there are times when it is a single bad guy or a group of some bad guys who are overtly being jerks. At the site STEM Feminist amply documents,, lots of women hear directly from managers who have all sorts of sexist assumptions about their competence. (It’s one of the great ironies of conservatives talking out of both sides of their mouth that they can say in the same conversation that women don’t have the temperament to be President and then insist that no discrimination exists and every woman has a fair shot, as if they could fairly adjudicate a woman’s credentials and qualifications based on their overt and publicly expressed bias).

            But men in general are not responsible for the actions of those few jerks, and no one of any consequence is saying anything to the contrary. The few bad actors can do a lot of damage, but their actions still only speak for themselves when it comes to moral culpability.

So why bring it up at all, then?

Well, putting aside that we should care about each other even if we aren’t somehow directly involved, there is a collective responsibility.

One of the first things many activists learn is “You can’t be neutral on a moving train”. Social injustices didn’t descend to Earth from a meteor. To paraphrase Tim Wise: Crap got done by people to people. That means we’re all involved. When we live in a society that’s unjust, our continued participation in that society perpetuates that injustice. So it’s incumbent on us to put a line in the sand.

If I buy a sandwich from a business that mistreats their female wait staff and I wasn’t aware of it, I’m not a bad guy and I’m not responsible. But if I hear repeatedly that this business is terrible to its workers and I keep patronizing them, now there is an element of responsibility in my patronage.

If I treat my female coworkers and subordinates with respect, I’m not doing anything wrong. But if I fail to support appropriate political solutions or actively oppose those, then I am responsible for my little part of the problem once more.

Justice Can Be Achieved, So It’s Not Useless Complaints

The wage gap has solutions. We can do things about it. Companies can train their employees on how to deal with implicit bias. Women can be trained on how to negotiate in specific ways that won’t trigger the negative biases of those they work with. Government could pay teachers, social workers and other pink-collar public workers more. We could increase enforcement discrimination.

We’re not complaining about gravity. We’re complaining about something that is getting done by people to people and it could just as easily stop.

We’re Not Out For Blood

When I brainstormed this article, I asked myself, honestly, “If there was a proposal that stopped 60% of employment discrimination against women but involved no penalties against managers, or a proposal that stopped 40% of that discrimination but had harsh penalties, which would I pick?”

And I knew instantly: The first one.

Yes, justice requires that the absolute worst actors do face some penalties. That’s only fair. But if we could get justice without anyone suffering, that would be better than the alternative. Fix the system and then there won’t need to be anyone getting sued.

This isn’t some effort by women or feminists or leftists to punish businesses or to emasculate men. We’re asking for a positive solution.

We Want To Raise the Ceiling, Not Lower the Floor

Above, I mentioned the daddy track. Technically, nothing would be sexist about penalizing all parents equally for choosing to have children. But that would be a horribly unjust outcome.

The goal is to see women be paid better, and indeed for everyone to see improvements to their condition and options, rather than for men to be paid worse.

No One Thinks Everyone Deserves the Same Pay No Matter What

Many anti-feminists are galled by the focus on the wage gap. “No one has the right to be paid as much as anyone else!”, they say.

And that’s true, and their North Korean listeners had better tune in!

The rest of us will point out that people have the right to be paid fairly for hard work.

I believe that the only just reason someone should be paid more than anyone else is the effort and sacrifice they exert. If men on average worked harder than women, they should indeed be paid more. But, of course, that’s utter nonsense. Women work in some of the most thankless professions that require the most sacrifice. The market just doesn’t value those things because it’s brutal and inhuman.

Not everyone agrees with me. Marxists, for example, believe that people should be able to get from the social contract what they need and should provide according to their ability. That still is not perfect equity.

And even if you’re a ruthless capitalist, you should agree that, if women can find a way of demanding better pay, they deserve to get it. The anti-feminist doesn’t believe that. They want women to shut up rather than to demand more. Again, one of the ironies of this discussion is that some of those people who insist loudly that you should be able to take anything you can get then turn around and tell women it’s not fair for them to take what they can get. (Of course, this hypocrisy is paradigmatic: those who advocate an ethos of ruthlessness practically never actually believe it).

A social worker shouldn’t be paid more just because that’ll make women make more money. A social worker should be paid more because that job matters, and requires real skill and sacrifice, and it being at present underpaid and thankless leads to horrible social outcomes.

A teacher shouldn’t be paid more because we want to hit some arbitrary quota of equity. A teacher should be paid more because they are doing one of the most important jobs in society.

Only a misogynist can look at the sacrifices women make and really think, “Yeah, it makes sense that they make 23 cents less on the dollar”. They can play games with statistics all they want, but it remains a damned lie to cover up the truth: if you don’t care about the gender wage gap, you really don’t care about women all that much.

This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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About Fred B-C (28 Articles)
I'm a freelance hope warrior. While I am still figuring out exactly what that entails, I write novels and short stories, write for video games, design board games, do inspirational speaking and life coaching, and generally try to make the world just a little bit more pleasant. E-mails at frchristie@ucdavis.edu are always appreciated! (Yes, even trolling ones).

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