7 Things That Don't Explain Away The Wage Gap

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In a controversial letter to the editor last week, former Wasatch County, Utah Republican Party vice chair James Green argued that equal pay is not worth fighting for because the wage gap exists for a good reason. And that reason, in his view, is that women prioritize family over work. This is a common argument people use to explain away the wage gap, and like many other such arguments, it actually doesn't.

In the letter, which appeared in the Park Record and the Wasatch Wave, Green argued that if women start to earn more, "men will have an even more difficult time earning enough to support their families, which will mean more Mothers will be forced to leave the home (where they may prefer to be) to join the workforce to make up the difference. And as even more women thus enter the workforce that creates more competition for jobs (even men’s jobs) and puts further downward pressure on the pay for all jobs, meaning more and more Mothers will be forced into the workforce. And that is bad for families and thus for all of society."

If this outrages you, you're not alone. The letter sparked a lot of backlash, leading Green to apologize and resign. But his belief system is one that many people still hold despite evidence to the contrary. So let's go through this argument and similar ones and unpack why they're misguided.

Here are some factors people cite to explain away the wage gap that actually don't.


Shorter Hours

According to Green's argument, women make less money because they spend more time at home with children, which means they work fewer hours and then end up in lower-paying jobs because they've taken time off. But an American Association Of University Women report found that after you account for factors like hours that could affect earnings, a 12-7 percent wage gap still exists.

So, yes, hours could partially explain the wage gap. But to the extent that they do, they don't justify it (see #2).


Different Priorities

Mothers do tend to earn less than fathers, but this isn't always a choice. Women are less likely to get hired for being mothers — or even for potentially one day becoming mothers. A recent study described in Harvard Business Review found that people were less likely to say they'd hire women if they simply believed they might have kids soon. And even when they are working, women with kids make less money. A University of Massachusetts study found that when differences in hours were factored out, women made four percent less for each child they had.


Innate Gender Differences

Let's say, hypothetically, that a woman really does make less than her male counterparts just because she's staying home with her kids and working fewer hours. Even then, there may be societal reasons why she ended up in that position. After all, U.S. law guarantees men no parental leave, and tradition may influence which parent is most willing to stay home with children.


Different Professions

Another reason commonly cited for the wage gap is that women pursue different fields. But the American Association Of University Women found that the wage gap still exists for people with the same college majors. And women make less even in high-paying fields. A study published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine found that female doctors who are also med school professors make about eight percent less than their male counterparts.

Plus, we need to look at why women end up in lower-paying fiends. When more women enter a field, the pay goes down. So, it's not just that women are choosing lower-paying professions — it's also that professions actually become lower-paying when they're considered "feminine."


Different Interests

Once again, to the extent that women do end up in lower-paying professions, we shouldn't chalk that up to innate differences. Gender stereotypes and male-dominated work environments keep women out of STEM and other high-paying professions.


Different Job Roles

Another explanation often provided for the wage gap is that there are fewer women at the highest levels of their companies. That's a problem in of itself: One Fairygodboss survey found that women's number one complaint about work was being overlooked for promotions. But even when women do make it to the top, they still make less money. In fact, the wage gap is wider in management roles, according to a study by Earnest.


Different Communication Styles

Then, there's the argument that women just negotiate less. And once again, they do — 42 percent of men but only 26 percent of women have negotiated a salary, according to an Earnest survey — but once again, that's not because they just choose to. Women who negotiate risk punishment for being assertive and bucking gender norms. A study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that people were more likely to dislike women than men after they read about them negotiating.

In other words, a woman can do everything perfectly and still make less money than the men around her. And since the wage gap has consequences not only for our bank accounts for also for our mental health, it's time we stop blaming women and start holding companies accountable.