I wanted to take a break from my usual trans/queer discourse and take the time to talk about economics a bit. No worries, though, as this is covering perhaps one of the controversial topics in popular economic discourse today: the gender wage gap. Why is it so controversial? Feminists would argue that most people don’t want to believe that people are generally sexist, much less that the norms and institutions they have come to identify with are inherently problematic. They want to believe that things like sexism and racism are a thing of the past. We and our institutions are nothing like they were yesteryear. We can’t be those things because we know better. I’m really a good person, aren’t I?
To be honest, the impulse to protect one’s ego and the idea that the world isn’t really that bad is a very common and natural one. We all have it. Cognitive dissonance isn’t fun for anyone and it’s a primary driver behind all kinds of denialisms including, but not limited to, climate change denialism, evolutionary theory denialism, holocaust denialism, AIDS denialism, and many others. One of the most recent forms of denial that has been occupying my mind recently is the gender wage gap denialism that I observed in response to an article published by NBC News, which reported that “women earned roughly half the income of men in the United States over a 15-year period, taking into account time off for family or child care”. The alarming part of the report is that the pay gap appears to be even larger than previously thought by experts studying the issue. The authors of the report attribute the trend partially to the fact that women are “twice as likely as men to take at least one year off work” among other reasons.
The reactions to this article were disappointingly predictable. Plenty of people made appeals to personal experience, other anecdotes, and bald assertions that the gender pay gap is a myth. When I presented arguments and evidence to the contrary, most opponents chose to ignore my evidence or to assert that they favor personal experience over scientific data and statistics because, well, scientists are flawed. My response was that while it is true that researchers are flawed, it doesn’t mean the general body of literature indicating a gender pay gap is wrong. Further, we also have no reason to believe that our own beliefs about our personal experiences apart from the scientific data are any more reliable. In fact, we have plenty of reasons to believe that they are not (for more reasons, click here). This is why science, reason and other useful tools humans have devised in order to understand the world are so important. Yes, they are flawed, but they can help us avoid some of the many pitfalls of human cognition (though they cannot prevent them entirely).
So this begs the question, is there really a gender wage gap? And if so, what factors are contributing to the problem, what can we do about it, and (most interestingly), what should we do about it?
Evidence of a gap
The United States Department of Labor (DOL) published a very accessible breakdown of the data regarding the gender wage gap (for more data, you can look here). In this breakdown, they explain the following regarding the causes of the gap, which include “gender segregation across occupations” and “women’s unpaid work”:
“This is not an exhaustive list, and some causes for the wage gap remain unexplained by existing research. For example, gender discrimination may be responsible for some portion of the unexplained wage gap. However, these are some of the major factors that have been barriers to women’s earning potential and pay equality. And there is more to the story: women of color continue to face significant racial wage gaps on top of the gender wage gap.”
In short, much of the gap can be explained by things other than outright discrimination. The primary causes appear to be the fact that women are more likely to have lower-paying jobs and are still very underrepresented in many job roles, especially among business executives and software engineers.
Women are also taking most of the domestic responsibilities at home, even when they work full time. This phenomenon of working mothers having the primary responsibility of running the home is often called the second shift.
More sophisticated gender pay gap denialists will admit that the data generally do suggest a gap. However, they argue that once voluntary choices (i.e., where one goes to school, what one studies while in school, what kind of occupation one chooses, what kinds of training one gets, etc.) between men and women are controlled for, the gap all but vanishes. In other words, women are, on average, paid less because they choose lower paying jobs, are less assertive in the work place, and take more time off (e.g., maternity leave, focusing on raising kids or maintaining the home).
However, there are flaws in these conclusions. Dr. Steve Horwitz, economist and free market proponent, cautions against concluding that the gender pay gap is a myth based on the above mentioned findings. He warns,
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Other research support Horwitz’s challenge to “human capital” explanations. For instance, if women enter the work force taking lower paying positions (such as, for example, teachers, social workers, nurses, etc.) as opposed to higher paying ones (software engineers, scientists, doctors, executives, etc.) who’s to say those choices were not heavily influenced by the way they were raised as girls? It is well known that girls and boys are influenced, even conditioned, to prefer different things (dolls as opposed to trucks) and aspire to different careers (teacher as opposed to engineer). The problem with the human capital model is that it appears to fall short in accounting for factors like socialization and cultural norms by making some rather flawed assumptions regarding rational choice, individual preferences and autonomy. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this post (a summary of some of the issues can be found here and here). However, I will take some time to say a little more about autonomy.
Autonomy and individual choice
In Western discourse, autonomy is typically conceived as the ability to govern one’s self and to make choices independent of outside forces. In her work, The Sources of Normativity, Kristine M. Korsgaard articulates an idea of autonomy that is inspired by the philosopher Immanuel Kant:
“…[t]he human mind is self-conscious in the sense that it is essentially reflective. I’m not talking about being thoughtful…but about the structure of our minds that makes thoughtfulness possible. A lower animal’s attention is fixed on the world. Its perceptions are its beliefs and its desires are its will. It is engaged in conscious activities, but it is not conscious of them…But we human animals turn our attention on to our perceptions and desires themselves, and we are conscious of them. That is why we can think about them.
“…[O]ur capacity to turn our attention onto our own mental activities is also a capacity to distance ourselves from them and call them into question. I perceive, and I find myself with a powerful impulse to believe. But I back up and bring that impulse into view and then I have a certain distance…and now I have a problem. Shall I believe? Is this perception really a reason to believe? I desire and I find myself with a powerful impulse to act. But I back up and bring that impulse into view…Shall I act? Is this desire really a reason to act?…
“…So if I decide that my desire is a reason to act, I must decide that on reflection I endorse that desire. And here we find the problem. For how do I decide that?…
“Kant described this same problem in terms of freedom. It is because of the reflective structure of the mind that we must act, as he puts it, under the idea of freedom. He says, ‘We can not conceive of a reason which consciously responds to a bidding from outside with respect to its judgments.’ If the bidding from outside is desire, then his point is that the reflective mind must endorse the desire before it can act on it–it must say to itself that the desire is a reason. We must, as he puts it, make it our maxim to act on the desire. And this is something we must do of our own free will.”
A proponent of the human capital model might argue that though women are socialized from a young age to have certain preferences and to make certain career impacting choices, they are still free to pursue whatever interests or goals are available to them just as men are. In other words, a woman still has the ability to reflect on her beliefs and impulses, to choose to endorse them and to act accordingly. However, this idea of autonomy is fundamentally flawed.
If it is true that no force outside of our will can determine which beliefs and impulses we endorse, then endorsements of the will are random. If the endorsements of the will are random, then they are not free. So there are only three options: either our choices are determined by outside forces, they are chance events, or they are some combination of the two. Free will fits nowhere among these three options.
A more coherent conception of free will comes from compatibilism: the belief that free will and determinism are compatible because free will does not mean that an agent can act freely of outside causes, but that she can act independent of the wills of other agents. This compatibilist perspective can be more attractive when we consider specific problems with personal autonomy:
“…[A]ny agent who faces the task of ‘making up her mind’ has the authority to determine how she will act. On most occasions, what an agent does is the direct effect of her exercise of this authority. Yet there is also ample evidence that the capacity for self-government is vulnerable to any number of assaults; an agent’s authority over her actions is no guarantee that she had the power to determine how she exercises this authority. Agents can be deprived of their autonomy by brainwashing, depression, anxiety, fatigue; they can succumb to compulsions and addictions. To what, exactly, are we calling attention when we say that, under these conditions, an agent does not govern herself, even if she acts as she does because she thinks she has sufficient reason to do so, even if she has (thoroughly) considered the pros and cons of her options, and had endorsed her behavior on this basis, and even if she would have acted differently if there had been stronger reason to do so? Most agents who are capable of asking this question are confident that they are authors of most of their actions, and are thus accountable for most of what they do. Nonetheless, as this brief survey indicates, the self-relations they thereby attribute to themselves is extremely difficult to pin down.”
When considering the role of socialization in human decision making, it is important to keep in mind the sociohistoric context of our choices. We exist in a world where our range of choices are constrained both physically and socially. Furthermore, our ability to perceive and reflect on our choices is constituted by existing norms and social institutions, both of which rely heavily on language: the communication of meanings that is the “foundation” of our institutions, our traditions, our culture. In other words, the reflective mind and its functions are not distinct from the social world “outside” of it. Therefore, to say that one acts independently of the social world is to utter a contradiction.
Thus the idea that we can act freely of our institutions and culture is a really odd one. However, this does not mean that autonomy does not exist. Rather, it is language and the wider social world that facilitates it. Stated differently, a person’s ability to resist “socialization” is itself a product of said socialization. Consider the meaning of the word “constrain”.
In common language, to constrain is to limit something and a constraint is a force that is applied in order to constrain said thing. A little girl may be constrained by the choices made available to her, or even imposed on her. However, constraints also serve a facilitating function. For example, in motor behavior theory, physical laws not only limit what human bodies can do, but they also produce the movement patterns that people generate. Therefore, the very constraints that compel the little girl to comply also facilitate her ability to say no. As Daniel Dennett might say, though her choices are determined, they are not inevitable. She still has the capacity to anticipate and avoid outcomes she does not want.
As has been demonstrated, the gender wage gap myth is no myth at all as it relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts and what it means for individuals to make autonomous choices. Women are constrained by all sorts of factors outside their control, including gender norms, expectations, and other social factors, including gender discrimination. A woman is free in her social world insofar as she can anticipate and resist the actions of others. Therefore, if we wish to truly facilitate autonomous choices for women, we need to critically examine our norms and institutions and see if they impose any undue constraints on the basis of gender, race, or any other social dimension.
Sexism is a real phenomenon that we cannot continue to ignore. Though things have been getting better, there is still some way to go. When it comes to the gender pay gap, the first step is to acknowledge it.
If you are interested in learning more about the gender pay gap, you can review the following links: