April 24th was Equal Pay Day, which various groups use to spotlight the statistical pay gap between women and men in the workforce. Reports put the gap at something like 77 cents on the dollar for full-time workers, meaning that for every dollar a man earns, a woman earns 77 cents. A recent study from the American Association of University Women also shows that women earn less coming out of college than men do, as well.
On the surface, this would seem to bolster the idea that gender discrimination is still rife in the workplace, and I’m not going to argue that it doesn’t exist. But a closer look at some of the data shows that a large percentage of this gap is due to factors that are entirely a matter of the choices that women tend to make about their work, rather than constraints placed on them from outside.
For example, women overwhelmingly choose to choose degrees and/or work in traditionally low-paying, nurturing-based fields such as psychology, social work, teaching, government or non-profits and humanities rather than high-paying technical degrees and careers such as engineering, math and business. These jobs may offer plenty of personal rewards that make up for their relatively paltry salaries, but on a strictly statistical basis they lower the baseline income that is factored in for all working women.
Additionally, women tend to choose: part-time work over full-time work (resulting in lower overall job experience and resulting pay), leaving work earlier in life to spend time with family, spending more time away from work during their careers for things such as maternity leave, family concerns and related reasons, commuting fewer miles (thus narrowing the pool of potential work) and so on.
Add it all up, and (depending who’s broadcast you’re listening to or paper your reading) upwards of 70% of the pay gap can be directly attributed to these sorts of choices, rather than some diabolical scheme to undermine women by shortsheeting their paycheck.
Of course, that still leaves a statistically significant percentage of the pay gap to account for. But the reality is that in general, women are earning less compared to men because apparently we prefer (or feel compelled) to go into less lucrative careers, stay in them for a shorter period of time and invest less of ourselves and our lives in them compared to men.
I have to say that this has proved true for at least the latter part of my life. Although I spent the first part of my life in the entertainment field (which can pay well, but didn’t exactly buy any luxury yachts, at least at my level), the latter part of my life has been spent working for the greater good, rather than the greater dollar. I mean, it’s not like I’m in Americorps for the stock options or anything. And a lot of creativity and hard work has gone into creating a personal career chosen in large part so I can devote less time to working and more time to doing the things I love with the people I love.
Like I said, I’m not disputing that at least in some arenas men are paid more than women for the same work, and are more likely to be hired, promoted and rewarded. But the bottom line is that if you want to bank with the big boys, you need to go into finance, high-tech or pro sports, not become a kindergarten teacher or an Americorps member.
And let’s be fair here – as a group, women have traditionally made choices that have placed higher values on nurturing others, building communities and making personal and family issues a priority rather than focusing on the bottom line. Personally, I’m proud of that distinction, and I don’t think that the statistical gap it creates should be used as a tool to propagandize us all into the roles of hapless victims, existing at the whims of a malevolent patriarchal state.
I’m not a victim, dammit! I’m broke because I chose meaning over money, and doing good over doing well. The only discrimination involved was my discrimination in choosing how I wanted to spend my time. To say otherwise is to belittle the truly difficult choices involved in making that and similar decisions, in deciding to turn my back on financial gain in preference for personal and spiritual wealth, and doing so in a culture that worships status and wealth and denigrates anything that smacks of self-sacrifice (unless there’s a million dollar sports contract at the finish line).
If we want to do something about the pay gap, don’t belittle my (and other women’s) difficult choices by calling us victims. Rather, let’s get proud of our choices and lobby to demand better pay for doing the nurturing, civilization-building careers like teaching, nursing, humanitarian work and other social heavy lifting that keeps this country running.
The pay gap will slam shut of its own accord the day a social worker who saves a child from a lifetime of abuse and neglect or a teacher who starts a kid on the path to personal greatness gets the same contractual considerations as A-Rod (or, for that matter, any corporate CEO). Up until that point, no amount of anti-discrimination legislation will do more than line the already well-insulated pockets of the politicians (mostly men) who’ll look good passing it, knowing all the while that it will serve little or no purpose.