The existence of the gender pay gap is a well-documented fact. Respected institutions from the Pew Research Center to the Senate Joint Economic Committee confirm that American women make about 77 cents to the average man’s dollar. For women of color, the disparity is even steeper. Yet conservatives and anti-feminists insist the research is flawed or that it ignores social factors separating men and women. At the current rate at which women's pay is improving, the World Economic Forum says it will take 200 years to close the gender pay gap worldwide.
This makes it more urgent than ever that we debunk myths about the falsity of the gender pay gap. Here are four of the most common.
1. Myth: Women choose lower-paying work.
Anti-feminists and academic contrarians like to make the case that women are to blame for receiving lower pay because they freely choose lower-paying work. Breitbart likes to push this idea to appease its feminist-hating audience, with headlines like "Data Reveals Women Overwhelmingly Choose Lower-Paying College Majors." In fact, studies have shown that many women avoid careers in finance and technology that typically pay more because they’ve been socialized to believe that women can’t excel in the sciences or because they lack female role models in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Some women even choose majority-female fields to avoid discrimination and sexual harassment in male-dominated workplaces, which the #MeToo movement has shown us still runs rampant.
Christina Hoff Sommers, a controversial scholar and critic of feminism (whom the Southern Poverty Law Center called out earlier this month for emboldening and legitimizing men’s rights groups) advocated this very argument in 2016 for Time. Feminists, in her view, falsely claim that:
“women’s tendency to retreat from the workplace to raise children or to enter fields like early childhood education and psychology, rather than better paying professions like petroleum engineering, is evidence of continued social coercion. Here is the problem: American women are among the best informed and most self-determining human beings in the world. To say that they are manipulated into their life choices by forces beyond their control is divorced from reality and demeaning, to boot.”
Sommers refers to the well-established fact that even today, women still enter lower-paying fields, as a recent Glassdoor study shows that college majors that lead to lower-paying careers are female-dominated, while those that have more male students, like engineering, lead to high-paying jobs. According to Sommers’ line of thought, a woman should choose engineering over nursing, since she could make more money in that career path. She worries about “self-determination,” but doesn’t it limit a woman’s autonomy to suggest she choose a job path just because it is higher-paying, rather than one she is more passionate about? A better solution, many feminists have argued in response, would be to pay nurses, teachers and other largely female workers more money, rather than pressure more women to opt into certain careers just because they pay more.
Women don’t choose certain jobs because they pay less. On the contrary, historical trends show that as more women entered previously male-dominated fields, average salaries dropped in those jobs. As the Harvard Business Review explains, that’s because the jobs became less prestigious as they became female-dominated:
“Researchers have found that the pay gap is not as simple as women being pushed into lower-paying jobs. In effect, it is the other way around: Certain jobs pay less because women take them. Wages in biology and design were higher when the fields were predominantly male; as more women became biologists and designers, pay dropped. The opposite happened in computing, where early programmers were female. Today, that field is one of the most predominantly male — and one of the highest paying.”
Sommers’ argument is also white-centric, ignoring the fact that poor women of color often do not have the same information or access to options that white women do. It is not “demeaning,” as she says, to assert that such women’s career choices are limited by their circumstances. It’s just the reality of American poverty.
2. Myth: Women choose to work fewer hours and select more part-time work than men do.
This argument has appeared in mainstream outlets such as Forbes, but it only tells part of the story of women’s employment in the U.S.
While it’s true that 31 percent of women work part-time compared to 18 percent of men, this can be largely attributed to the fact that the U.S. still lacks federally mandated family leave, unlike countries like Canada, Germany and the U.K. Without this job protection or flexibility, many women must choose part-time work over full-time. In many households, men are able to earn higher salaries than women, so lots of couples still choose to have the woman remain at home with the children while men go to work. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, “more than half of the respondents thought children were better off if the mother stayed home" while "34 percent believed they’d be as well off if she worked. Only 8 percent said they'd be better off if the father stayed home.” This commonly held belief isn’t based in fact — stay-at-home-dads can raise kids just as successfully as stay-at-home-moms. In many families, these parenting gender biases and financial factors mean that women still sacrifice their careers to raise children.
3. Myth: Women choose jobs with flexibility over high pay so they can care for families.
Heejung Chung, a sociologist at the University of Kent who studies gender pay gap myths, investigated this subject last year. She found that, despite the popularity of telecommuting and remote work, this myth does not reflect the reality of most workplaces in 2018. The jobs women generally choose often do not provide the flexibility some economists think they prioritize over higher pay. Chung writes in Slate: “working in female-dominated workplaces such as care work, primary education, or places where the work tends to be largely clerical meant you were only half as likely to have access to flexitime compared to other workplaces.”
4. Myth: More women are getting college degrees than men, so the gap will close on its own.
Not true. As explained above, existing sexist social pressures will mean that women will continue to choose college majors that lead to lower-paying jobs. As the Washington Post explains, though the pay gap between younger and more educated men and women is narrower than for older Americans, male college graduates in their 20s still earn more than women the same age.
(Credit: The Washington Post)
Just because women today have more autonomy in decision-making when it comes to their careers than previous generations doesn’t mean we’ve finished our work in evening out the playing field. As long as male-dominated careers are seen as more prestigious; as long as girls are not encouraged to pursue higher-paying fields early on in life; and as long as working full-time as a mom continues to be a taboo, women will continue to wind up in jobs that pay less.