How To Argue The Wage Gap Exists

by Chris Tognotti

So you're at a party, and someone says something ignorant. And while you know that they're in the wrong, and that you could totally engage them and win if you were a bit more prepared, your words escape you. To make sure that doesn't happen, we've compiled a series of handy reference guides with the most common arguments — and your counter-arguments — for all of the hot-button issues of the day. This week's topic: How to argue for equal pay.

Common Argument #1: The wage gap is a myth.

Your Response: If you're arguing that the wage gap is a myth, there's a decent chance that you're saying so because you dispute the most commonly cited claim: that women earn just 78 cents for every dollar that men earn. This particular figure is arrived at by comparing American women's median annual earnings with the men's, but as many critics have observed, this can feel misleading, as it doesn't necessarily account for differences in hours worked, maternity leave and time off for child care, or the relative lucrativeness of different career paths and fields of study that men and women pursue. When you factor in those conditions, the figure narrows to about 93 cents per every man's dollar. Which, notably, is still a wage gap!


Common Argument #2: Well, that's barely anything at all.

Your Response: First of all, I'd like to bask a little in that last point. Anyone telling you the wage gap doesn't exist is engaged in their own brand of deception — a bigger one than simply overstating the extent of the existing gap. When you start by arguing "X is a myth," then effortlessly slide into "X isn't a big deal," it might be worth considering your motivations. But at any rate, however small it might sound, there's no justification (beyond the idea that women don't deserve equal pay or shouldn't be whining about it, which again, maybe says something) for letting it persist.

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Common Argument #3: But shouldn't we spend our time on something more significant?

Your Response: Politicians sometimes have to prioritize which issues they tackle, but that's not a burden that a private citizen arguing on the internet has. This is really nothing but a derailing tactic — you can have myriad opinions about countless different issues all at once, without one coming at the expense of another. And regardless of how trivial it seems to you — "oh, it's just a few cents here or there" — it's nonetheless a slap in the face to countless women, and a stain on our national morality. Fairness and equality this ain't.

Common Argument #4: Don't men and women make different career choices?

Your Response: Sure! But once again, institutional sexism itself can impact which careers women choose to pursue — whether you're talking about making it into the notoriously male-centric corporate culture, or getting into one of those much-discussed STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), there's a downward pressure that can discourage young girls from heading in that direction.

For example, a 2015 study by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that a mere 7 percent of British parents said they would encourage their daughters to become engineers, favoring instead jobs with very gendered associations — like child care and education, for example. That sort of attitude helps create a pressure, leaning on young women and girls to pursue typically "nurturing" careers instead. And while there's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to work with children, or become an educator, it's absolutely vital that young women feel empowered at every stage of their development to pursue whatever life they want, even when it cuts against stereotypical cultural norms.


Common Argument #5: So you're saying that all these companies and CEOs are sexists?

Your Response: No, not necessarily. But that doesn't mean sexism is irrelevant — you don't need to be staring down a personally sexist individual in order to identify how sexism plays its role, whether societally or institutionally. As I was just saying, societal sexism makes its presence felt through a gender-normative culture that works to convince young women that they have a limited range of future career options, and a limited number of roles that society will value them for.

Or institutional sexism, for example — what about the fact that human reproduction depends entirely on the literal physical and emotional labor of women, yet in America they're often not compensated for that time? And that pregnancy and maternal leave can cause women to fall behind relative to their male peers and be looked on as less reliable despite the fact that, you know, men become parents, too. It's not necessarily about some Mad Men-style office full of freewheeling misogynists. It's about the little ways a historically patriarchal system works against women's representation in various workplaces.

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Common Argument #6: The Obama administration doesn't even hold to its own equal pay rhetoric.

Your Response: That's true! In the Obama White House, women earn thousands of dollars less on average that their male colleagues do. This is yet another example of the pervasiveness of the problem, even within ostensibly progressive and forward-thinking organizations. It's not an argument against taking equal pay seriously, though. In fact, it's entirely the opposite. It's possible you were just trying to point out some hypocrisy here, and fair enough if so, but you're really only advancing the case that there is a problem.

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Common Argument #7: I don't see any evidence that any of this has to do with discrimination, though.

Your Response: Then why, pray tell, do black women make so much less than white men, but also white women too? And why do Latina women make even less? It's one thing to insist (in the face of a measurably apparent pay gap) that sexism might not necessarily account for all of these discrepancies, but when you dig into the numbers, it becomes clear that this is a prime example of intersectional discrimination. It's possible that you don't care much about this, and if that's the case you're welcome to ignore it, but know this — the people who do care aren't going to cool their heels just because you think it's silly.

Image: Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle