You all seemed to like the conversation about the gender wage gap after Obama’s State of the Union address, so I put together something a bit more formal for the Boston Globe. (sidenote: I am strangely fascinated by the graphic used for that article- it’s very Beatles-esque trippy, as in “picture yourself in a bot on a money river” or something…I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to fish for money with a red suction cup.) Here’s a more, let’s say, unfiltered version for those already somewhat familiar with the matter:
In terms of “equal pay for equal work,” literally speaking, men and women are in fact on pretty equal footing- about 96 cents on the dollar for non-married women versus men if I recall correctly, so better enforcement of narrowly-defined discrimination laws won’t do a whole lot to narrow the observed wage gap that has been defined as problematic. In other words, let’s cut it out with the 77-cents crap. From a fairness perspective, the matter is somewhat complicated, since women with families (and, by extension, women on average) do in fact work fewer hours than men and ask for more flexibility in terms of working hours and location. So what would be fair? Let’s say that a woman works 20 percent less than an equivalent male- one starting point for fairness might be that she earn 20 percent less than the man. But what if working 20 percent less means that she’s not as “on call” or “present” as the man? This could make her productivity, on an hours-adjusted basis, less than the man’s, in which case it could be considered fair to pay her more than 20 percent less.
The situation described above illustrates how an inflexible workplace that likely seems generally fair leaves women with family responsibilities behind in two ways. First, women who care for children can’t work as many hours as men who don’t have such responsibilities if it is mandated that those hours have to be between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., for example, but they likely could if they could get proper credit for hours they spend working in the early mornings and evenings, perhaps from home. Second, inflexibility in terms of worker substitution makes it nearly impossible for a more “part time” employee to have the same productivity (even on an hours-adjusted basis) as one who gives over his entire existence to his employer. If workplaces enabled more flexible organizational practices, women would both be able to work more hours and be more productive in those hours, thereby alleviating much of the wage gap without what potential critics would refer to as special treatment. Also, men would get more flexibility too. (This is where you say “yay!”)
Claudia Goldin gives a very good example of how rigidity in the workplace that is not actually necessary has been done away with, to the benefit of women and their earnings:
Several changes in the pharmacy profession have been responsible for the increase of female to male earnings. The first is the decrease in self-ownership and the rise of large corporation and hospital employment. As corporate ownership and hospital employment increased, the portion of earnings that came from self-employment decreased. The ratio of the (time-adjusted) earnings of female to male pharmacists, in consequence, increased as the rents from ownership decreased and because men were disproportionately the owners.
The second change involves decreased costs to flexible employment in pharmacy. Pharmacists have become better substitutes for each other with the increased standardization of procedures and drugs. The extensive use of computer systems that track clients across pharmacies, insurance companies, and physicians mean that any licensed pharmacist knows a client’s needs as well as any other. If a pharmacist is assisting a customer and takes a break, another can seamlessly step in. In consequence, there is little change in productivity for short-hour workers and for those with labor force breaks. Other factors mentioned in the O*Net section are also of importance. For example, there is less need for interdependent teams in pharmacy and for extensive contact with other employees.
Female pharmacists have fairly high labor force participation rates and only a small fraction have substantial interruptions from employment. Rather than taking off time, female pharmacists with children go on part-time schedules. In fact, more than 40 percent of female pharmacists with children work part-time from the time they are in their early thirties to about 50 years old. Male pharmacists work around 45 hours a week, about nine hours more than the average female pharmacist.
Goldin also notes that similar changes have occurred in the field of obstetrics (i.e. delivering babies and such) once patients started accepting that anyone from a team of qualified doctors could deliver a baby under most circumstances, so having their particular obstetrician on call and available at all times was not absolutely crucial.
So why doesn’t this happen everywhere without the dreaded government intervention? In some industries, it might not logistically be possible. In those cases, I’m not sure what can be done other than making sure that people (not just women) know what they’re getting into when they make educational investments and career commitments. In other industries, well…how do I put this delicately…not everyone wants to compete with women with families for their jobs. These people aren’t necessarily being jerks, they’re just being rational- less competition for jobs means higher wages, although kind of in an inefficient rent-seeking fashion if changes that could make more people more productive are needlessly curtailed for the benefit of the incumbent workers. (before you judge too harshly, think about how you would respond if you were told that your employer wanted to enact policies that would make workers more interchangeable.)
I suppose that the second scenario could be legislated to some degree in the same sense that antitrust is legislated- on a complicated, case by case basis- but that sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. By process of elimination, I guess I would want to know what caused the industries that Goldin described above to change and have some smart people think about how similar mindsets and incentives could be brought to other industries. In any case, doesn’t it seem better to narrow the pay gap by enabling women to work as much and be as productive as men rather than by trying to just will it out of existence?
And here you thought it was my logo that was setting feminism back 50 years. =P