The Pay Gap: The Chicken and the Egg

I recently came upon a really interesting blog post at Crates and Ribbons.

The gender wage gap has long been an issue of importance for feminists, and one that consistently finds itself on the UN and government agendas. Despite this, there is a persistent idea among many in mainstream society (mostly men, and some women) that the gender wage gap is simply a myth, that women are paid less on average because of the specific choices that women make in their careers. Everything, they claim, from the industry a woman chooses to establish herself in, to the hours she chooses to work, to her decision to take time off to spend with her children, and so on, leads to lower pay, for reasons, they confidently assure us, that have nothing at all to do with sexism. Now we could delve into, and rebut, these points at length, but in this post, I will focus only on the assertion that the wage gap exists partly because women choose to go into industries that just happen — what a coincidence! — to be lower paid.

So here’s how the argument usually goes. Women, they say, gravitate towards lower-paid industries such as nursing, cleaning, teaching, social work, childcare, customer service or administrative work, while men choose to work in politics, business, science, and other manly, well-paid industries. Those who propagate this idea usually aren’t interested in a solution, since they see no problem, but if asked to provide one, they might suggest that women behave more like men, one aspect of this being to take up careers in male-dominated industries that are more well-paid (and respected, but they seldom say this out loud).

But is this really a solution, even a small one? What their analysis misses out is the question of how the average pay levels of different industries are decided in the first place.

In other words, why are cleaning, social work, and secretarial work paid less in the first place? What if part of the reason they are low paying professions is that women have traditionally been the ones doing them?

First of all, women have traditionally been paid less. Historically, this is because it was assumed that their income was supplementary, or that they were earning money to put a brother through college or have something to start out on when marrying. In other words, it is very possible that teaching, social work, and customer service work, among others, pay less than other professions at least in part because they have traditionally hired women, and employers have traditionally been able to pay women less than men.

For example, in the 1900s, superintendents had to pay male teachers more than female teachers, largely because, with the availability of other more highly paying work for men (but not for women), educated males wouldn’t stay in teaching otherwise. This meant that it was more cost effective for schools to hire female teachers (note that I am not saying this is the only reason that teaching became feminized, but it definitely played a role). If women had been in the position to demand the same pay for teaching as men (i.e., if they had had other higher-paying career options competing for their labor like men did), superintendents would have been forced to offer more and teaching would not have paid so little. So while men cannot (legally) be paid more than women for the same work today, the fact that women could be paid less in the past very likely contributes to the continuing low-paying status of teaching relative to other professions.

There’s a second thing too, though, and that is that society is generally willing to pay more for what they value more. Traditionally (or at the very least in the past several hundred years, I don’t want to overgeneralize here), women’s work has been less valued than men’s. As a result, society has been willing to pay less for women’s work than they would for men’s work. To bring this back to teaching, it is likely that once teaching became feminized (in part as a result of the fact that female teachers could be paid less), it became devalued, as it became “women’s work.” And because we as a society therefore place less value on teaching than, say, a typically male profession like accounting, we pay teachers less.

I mean let me ask you this—why does construction pay so much more than cleaning? I mean yes, construction is more dangerous, and it involves building new things rather than maintaining the cleanness of existing things. But both require hard physical labor. Is it not possible that part of the reason construction pays more than cleaning is that constriction has traditionally been male work while cleaning has traditionally been female work? In other words, do we as a society place more value on construction than we do cleaning in part because of which gender does which? And have we as a society done so in the past?

Is there a way we could test this? Well obviously, this is a larger historical and sociological question. But the blogger at Crates and Ribbons does point to a specific example:

One of my lecturers at university once presented us with this thought exercise: why are doctors so highly paid, and so well-respected? Our answers were predictable. Because they save lives, their skills are extremely important, and it takes years and years of education to become one. All sound, logical reasons. But these traits that doctors possess are universal. So why is it, she asked, that doctors in Russia are so lowly paid? Making less than £7,500 a year, it is one of the lowest paid professions in Russia, and poorly respected at that. Why is this?

The answer is crushingly, breathtakingly simple. In Russia, the majority of doctors are women.

This—all of this—is important. Why? Because, quite simply, those who scoff at the idea of a pay gap tend to argue that women are the problem here—that women should go into higher paying professions, and then there wouldn’t be a pay gap, and that the pay gap is thus the fault of individual women’s choices and not the fault of some sort of system that needs fixing. But if the professions’ pay is determined at least in part by which gender predominates in that profession, and a gap in the value we place on “male work” and “female work,” that’s not actually a solution.

If science suddenly became a female thing, would it become less prestigious? If elementary school teaching suddenly became a male thing, would it become more prestigious? Of course, the correlation isn’t perfect—nursing appears to pay well despite being a traditionally female profession. I’m interested in hearing other thoughts as well, and if you have other articles or books to suggest, suggest away!

I can say this for sure—the pay gap is much too complex to simply blame on women’s individual choices.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.