February 13 2013

Why we Care about that Pesky Little "Wage Gap" statistic…

Sabrina Schaeffer

 

The folks over at PolicyMic challenge IWF’s position on the president’s SOTU last night. So let me take a moment to respond.

When it comes to the wage gap, we can keep repeating this same statistic, but that doesn’t make it true. First there’s the question of just how big the wage gap really is. While PolicyMic cites lots of different reports of the wage gap, the reality is it’s overstated. Even the left-leaning AAUW admits that when you control for any number of variables – from college major, time taken out of the workplace, time spent in the office each day – only a small wage gap (the AAUW says it’s closer to 6.6 percent) persists between men and women. And perhaps part of that gap can be explained by discrimination.

So the more important question is why does that gap remain? As women are increasingly outpacing men educationally and professionally it no longer makes sense to to insist that the pay gap is entirely a function of gender bias. There is, however, a robust conversation about what other social, cultural, and biological factors may influence the choices men and women make and how that translates into wages that I encourage the writers (and readers) over at PolicyMic to check out. (See The Science on Women and Science, edited by AEI’s Christina Hoff Sommers, a good treatment of these gender differences.)

The bottom line is that the wage gap is not the overwhelming threat progressives make it out to be. What’s more, portraying the workplace and society as hostile to women doesn’t actually encourage an open conversation about differences in men’s and women’s choices, it simply perpetuates the myth of women as victims in need of special protections from Uncle Sam. A more honest conversation about women in the workplace reveals that there are real and sensible ways women can increase their salaries without government intervention. A good place to start is encouraging women to negotiate their salaries – something Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg makes a point of and I write about here.

But why is this conversation about the wage gap so important? Because the inflation of the wage gap statistic is used to justify a range of workplace regulations, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, which may be grounded in good intentions but have serious economic consequences for men and women.

For my critics out there who fear discrimination persists as a serious problem, let me remind them just how valuable women are to the workforce. Women today make up nearly 50 percent of the workforce, receive more B.A.s, M.A.s and now Ph.D.s than men, are soaring to the top of almost every professional field, and are the nation’s leading consumers. Let’s be very clear: Women are an extremely valuable asset, and businesses recognize that.  

The cost of protective legislation is high. In fact, laws like Lilly Ledbetter and PFA actually increase the cost of employing women — especially women of childbearing age — by creating the threat of lawsuits and uncertainty. While I absolutely condemn base gender discrimination and believe we should protect the rights of those employees with legitimate grievances, too often protective laws encourage frivolous lawsuits, reduce flexibility in the workplace, and make it harder for employers to tie remuneration to work product. What’s more, they reinforce the idea that the workplace is hostile toward women.

Changing gender roles, improved technology and a vibrant private marketplace have given women (and men) more flexibility and choice than ever before. But we need to make sure government doesn’t get in the way.

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