The truth about the gender wage gap? It’s (really) complicated

There was a great Freakonomics podcast about the gender wage gap a while back that featured an interview with Harvard economist Claudia Goldin.  It’s hard to blog on a podcast, so I let it slide by.  Well, now, Vox’s Sarah Kliff has written a feature story–based largely on Goldin’s research–on the complexities of the gender wage gap, and it’s terrific.  Chances are pretty good you don’t understand this issue as well as you think you do.  And even if you do, it’s well worth reading (and there’s some really fun cartoons in there, too).  Here’s some highlights:

Instead, the workforce disadvantages women in subtler ways — ways that ultimately show up in their paycheck but don’t always begin there. The highest-paying jobs disproportionately reward those who can work the longest, least flexible hours.

These types of job penalize workers who have caregiving responsibilities outside the workplace. Those workers tend to be women.

As Goldin put it in her speech, “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might even vanish if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who worked long hours and worked particular hours.”

Goldin explains why the wage gap exists by looking at where it exists. What does it tell us when we learn that pharmacists, for example, have a really small wage gap but lawyers have a large one? How can we learn from the fact that women in their 30s have a way bigger wage gap than their co-workers a decade younger?

Let’s find out…

Certain hours are more important than others in some jobs — and those jobs have especially high wage gaps

Goldin’s research has found that workers in the industries with large wage gaps are more likely to say their jobs value those who “develop constructive and cooperative working relationships” and that their company generally determines their “tasks, priorities, and goals.”

Workers in these industries often face steep penalties for any interruption to their career. One study estimates that among lawyers, a year out of the labor force causes an 8.4 percent salary reduction.

When does it become harder to work a very specific schedule?

There are millions of jobs in America that demand very specific hours from very specific people. Most of the economy is organized around a set 9-to-5 schedule.

Those jobs generally worked great 50 years ago. Back then, nearly every American worker had a wife at home to manage anything that might interrupt a workday.

“She took care of all the big and small daily emergencies that might distract the American Worker from focusing 100 percent on his job while he was at work,” economist Heather Boushey writes in her book on work-life balance, Finding Time. “Her time at home made possible the American Worker’s time at work.”

But these silent partners are becoming increasingly rare. Most mothers of young children work now.

With no silent partner at home, workers now have to find a place in their schedule for caregiving. It’s tough to do, and women tend to be the ones who end up doing it…

Politicians like to talk about solutions to the gender wage gap. But it’s not clear how far government interventions can go.

Hillary Clinton in particular has pushed for more affordable child care and passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it illegal to fire or punish someone who asks a co-worker how much he or she makes.

Goldin tends to be skeptical of policy solutions because they can often play out in unpredictable ways. And they treat a symptom of the root problem — inflexible workplaces — rather than the problem itself.

Consider paid maternity leave, a policy often advocated to support working women. It is undoubtedly great for newborns to have more time with their mother in the first months of life. But this could actually lead to lower wages for women, as they would be more likely to have disruption to their careers…

Closing the wage gap means making jobs work differently. There are some jobs where that won’t be possible. Adding more flexibility won’t erase the gender wage gap overnight. But it is part of a larger shift in how we see jobs as different now that most workers are also responsible for some level of child care. And there are plenty where we could certainly try harder.

Great stuff.  We can actually take important steps to close the wage gap.  But it is as much about re-envisioning how we see modern workers and workplace flexibility and gender and care-giving roles as it is about government policy.  That said, I’m for all of the above.  But, as much as anything I’m for being honest about how complex this problem really is so we can think about it in a smart and thoughtful manner– like Claudia Goldin– to take the most appropriate steps as a society and as public policy.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to The truth about the gender wage gap? It’s (really) complicated

  1. ohwilleke says:

    The same factors that lead to wage inequity also puts strains on marriages. Wives with children tend to resolve those strains differently than husbands.

    One notable secondary theme in the TV series “Legends” (which tells the story of undercover FBI agents) is its close focus how the intense demands of the job harm the family lives of almost everyone, top to bottom, in the department, illustrating how these pressures can play out in every day life.

    Few of us have jobs that involve saving thousands of Los Angelenos from beings slaughtered with terrorist nerve gas attacks with clocks ticking, but lots of us, especially in the upper middle class, do have jobs where millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars can be on the line at work and putting in extra inconvenient hours at the cost of hard to monetize family time must be sacrificed to maximize the odds of those big dollar matters coming out right. So, the conflicts are easy to relate to.

  2. ohwilleke says:

    Also, this story confirms a not at all obvious or well known fact that is a major driver of the marriage gap between degree holders and non-degree holders in the U.S.

    While couples through the magic of assortive marriage often start out their marriage as economic equals, what happens next causes working class marriages to fall apart, while binding upper middle class marriages.

    Upper middle class women who leave the work force, even for a few years, to have children, go from being economically equal to their husbands to falling far, far behind them for the remainder of their careers, which tends to make them economically dependent upon their husbands or at least economically better off being married than single. And, the upper middle class men in the U.S. have been effectively in a state of “full employment” as economists define the term, pretty much non-stop for decades. Something like 80%-90% of income growth in the last forty years or so has gone to the upper middle class. Getting married and staying married allows upper middle class wives to share the economic sacrifice that they make by staying home and partially (but only partially) protects that sacrifice in a divorce.

    Thus, upper middle class marriage stability is intimately related to the earning inequalities faced by upper middle class wives who briefly leave the work force to have kids.

    In contrast, working class women are generally in jobs where there is little or no economic penalty for taking several years off from work and then returning to it. And, they tend to be in jobs with more stable employment than their blue collar husbands for who cyclical and seasonal unemployment is the norm. Also, the wages of the blue collar jobs of the husbands have been stagnant in inflation adjusted terms since the 1970s, while expanding job opportunities for women with the civil rights acts have greatly improved the number of jobs open to working class women and the pay that can be earned in those jobs. So, most working class men will experience multiple time periods when they are unemployed or involuntarily part-time or underemployed and earning less than their wives who started out at rough parity with them and stayed that way despite taking time off work and more with reduced hours while raising young children. This means that there are significant periods of time when blue collar men are not adding economic value to the household and this often triggers a divorce (and the knowledge that this often happens discourages marriage which brings little benefit to working class wives in families with little property to divide and a potential that they might have to pay alimony to their underemployed husbands if they split up).

    Gender equality in working class employment, in contrast, when coupled with lagging blue collar employment prospects, explain the greatly increased instability of working class marriages.

  3. R. Jenrette says:

    Who is having all those second and third wives then if the upper classes aren’t divorcing so much?
    I’m just saying…

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