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Women, Work, and the Facade of Choice

Women can’t “choose” to earn less than men if they aren’t given the same options

Grace Hawkins
Oct 21, 2018 · 7 min read
Credit: Justin Capone

I’ve been told recently that the wage gap doesn’t exist.

Since I am capable of doing simple math, I looked it up, and yes, $41,554 (the average woman’s salary in the U.S.) divided by $51,640 (the average man’s salary in the U.S.) results in a ratio of 80:100 or 80 percent.

The wage gap exists.

What that means is, on average, women earn 20 percent less than men. (This discrepancy increases as we factor in race, with black women earning 37 percent less and Latina women earning 46 percent less than white men.)

What it doesn’t mean, necessarily, is that women earn 20+ percent less than men for working the exact same job.

Yes, there are plenty of fields where women are paid less than men for performing the same job. But even if that isn’t the case across the board, women are still paid less than men on average. Why?

There are several ways the choices women make might not be as free as we think.

The most common explanation for the 20-percent wage gap, and the reason many people feel comfortable claiming it doesn’t exist, is that women occupy lower-paying fields of work than men. With this in mind, it would make sense for the average woman’s salary to be less than the average man’s.

Problem solved, right?

What this explanation fails to examine, however, is why women occupy lower-paying fields of work to begin with.

I’ve heard the justifications for this too. Most often, they involve the idea of choice: women choosing to prioritize family over work, choosing to major in the humanities instead of the sciences, choosing to be nice at work instead of playing hardball.

It only makes sense that personal choice plays a factor in the gender wage gap. No one is holding women at gunpoint and forcing them to study cosmetology instead of welding. But there are several ways the choices women make might not be as free as we think.

Choosing Being Liked Over Being Respected

One of the biggest “choices” women make that perpetuates the wage gap is choosing not to negotiate for higher salaries.

Women are significantly less likely to negotiate for a higher salary than their male peers. To demonstrate, a study by Carnegie Mellon University found that, of students graduating with a master’s degree, 57 percent of men negotiated for a higher starting salary at their first job. Only 7 percent of women did the same.

Some might say this is a result of women choosing to be liked over being respected, which is also a commonly used explanation for why women occupy fewer leadership positions than men.

Our complacency is not derived from free choice.

But for women in the workplace, choosing not to negotiate is less of a choice than a survival instinct. Studies show that both male and female colleagues often resist working with a woman who has negotiated for a higher salary because she’s seen as more demanding than a woman who refrained from negotiating, and according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a woman who explains why she is qualified or mentions previous successes in a job interview can lower her chances of getting hired.

The fact that women “choose” to be unassertive in the workplace can’t be explained away by claiming they are naturally agreeable or communal creatures. Our complacency is not derived from free choice. Ambitious and often deserving women face an undue penalty for self-advocating, leaving them silent and tethered to a lower rate of pay.

Choosing Family Over Work

Let me start by saying that women are in the workplace, and we’re here to stay—even after having children.

Seventy percent of mothers with children under 18 participate in the labor force, and over 75 percent of them are employed full-time. Moreover, 40 percent of families with children rely on a mother as the primary or sole earner of the household.

Even though working moms supply the bedrock income of nearly half of American families, mothers earn less money on average than fathers, and the more kids they have, the less money they earn. A study at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that, on average, men’s earnings increased more than six percent when they had children, while women’s decreased four percent for each child they had.

You might assume this trend occurs because women prioritize family more than men do, and will often choose a flexible, lower-paying job over a rigid higher-paying one. But according to the Massachusetts-Amherst study, this phenomenon explains only a quarter to a third of the discrepancy between the earnings of mothers and fathers.

Even so, women’s tendency to choose lower-paying, more flexible jobs isn’t as much of a choice as we think. With fathers in heterosexual marriages contributing only eight hours a week to childcare (as opposed to mothers’ 14 hours) someone has to pick up the slack. And, in today’s economy, where employees who work long hours are rewarded with disproportionately more pay than those who work more flexibly, it makes sense to have one parent compromise their career to focus on the home, rather than to have both parents work flexibly (for less pay) or to outsource childcare.

We shoulder the responsibilities of family life at the cost of our careers — and do so because our husbands and our society demand it.

It also makes sense that the parent who compromises their career should be the one who earns less. Most often in heterosexual relationships, this means the woman, which only reinforces the pre-existing gender pay gap.

Even in families where the father is the lower-income earner, studies show he is likely to do even less housework than a breadwinning father in order to compensate for his “failure” to uphold gender norms. This obviously pushes an unfair amount of familial responsibility onto breadwinning moms.

It’s not that women “prioritize family and flexibility,” it’s that we shoulder the responsibilities of family life at the cost of our careers—and do so because our husbands and our society demand it.

“Yeah right,” you’re thinking. “I’d love to sit at home all day and babysit.”

First, if you’re interested in a career as a house husband, I’m taking applications.

Second, everyone else feels the same way: 39 percent of mothers and 50 percent of fathers say they feel they spend too little time with their children. Everyone wants more time at home with their families, which is why we need an economic system that supports the lifestyle of a family with two working parents, aka the most common type of family in the U.S.

Making flexibility the norm at work, offering paid maternity and paternity leave, and sharing the burden of housework and childcare equally between partners would give American women (and men!) the free choice—rather than the personal choice—to prioritize work and family as they please.

Choosing People Over Things

Another common explanation for why women occupy lower-paying fields of work is that they choose social, lower-paying jobs over technical, higher-paying jobs.

While this pattern may be rooted in nature (studies show newborn girls prefer to look at faces while newborn boys prefer to look at mechanical stimuli), women’s preference for soft-skill work does not excuse the pay gap.

There is compelling evidence that our perception of valuable work, i.e., industries and job positions deserving of high pay, is influenced by gender. In most cases, this means men’s work is considered more valuable than women’s work.

As the New York Times writes:

There was substantial evidence that employers placed a lower value on work done by women. A striking example is to be found in the field of recreation—working in parks or leading camps—which went from predominantly male to female from 1950 to 2000. Median hourly wages in this field declined 57 percentage points, accounting for the change in the value of the dollar, according to a complex formula used by Professor Levanon. The job of ticket agent also went from mainly male to female during this period, and wages dropped 43 percentage points.

The same thing happened when women in large numbers became designers (wages fell 34 percentage points), housekeepers (wages fell 21 percentage points) and biologists (wages fell 18 percentage points). The reverse was true when a job attracted more men. Computer programming, for instance, used to be a relatively menial role done by women. But when male programmers began to outnumber female ones, the job began paying more and gained prestige.

It’s not so much that we value the work women do less, it’s that we value work that’s done by women less.

When it comes to the issue of choice and the pay gap, we have to ask ourselves: Are women choosing lower-paying jobs, or are we choosing to pay them less because of their gender?

The Choice We Should Be Focused On

When we talk about choices that contribute to the wage gap, we need to stop explaining away societal inequalities by claiming women choose to earn less. The choice that’s being made is a societal one. We are choosing to keep women out of the most influential spheres of society, from Congress to the Fortune 500.

Instead of avoiding investigations into the wage gap by blaming women for the results of a system that disadvantages them, we need to examine our own choices when it comes to who we place in positions of power. Maybe then women will be able to earn the pay that they deserve.

Grace Hawkins

Written by

Smart Feminist. Opinion and creative writer. www.smartfeminist.com

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