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It's Not Time to Retire the Numbers in Wage Gap Discussion

04/05/2007 03:45 pm 15:45:50 | Updated May 25, 2011

Among the pantheon of statistics we college professor-types like to throw around in the lecture hall: the fact that a woman gets paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns endures as a favorite. In an Op-Ed piece for the Washington Post, author Carrie Lukas takes issue with this figure, not for its inaccuracy but its interpretation.

When interpreting the gender wage-gap, sociologists tend to focus on the institutional obstacles leading to inequality. Ms. Lukas, a researcher at policy think-tank, adopts the thinking of economists who attribute imbalances in earnings to women's distinctive investments in human capital. In such a rational choice perspective, women make "choices" that lead them prioritize family, personal fulfillment and the domestic sphere over the demands of the paid labor force, and in doing so, women diminish their earning power over time.

Such an argument makes perfect sense and Ms. Lukas is absolutely correct. My "college-educated" and "professional" women friends regularly commiserate about how our choices become wage penalties. One friend, a high-powered Washington, DC attorney, is trying to get pregnant. When, and if, she does, she plans to get off the fast-track for a partnership. As a new mom, she simply cannot see herself hiring the two nannies she would need to manage working her typical 80 hours per week. This "choice" means she will not be making partner on-schedule and will not be getting a substantial bump in salary. Another friend, a sports writer, confided to me she missed out on a promotion to columnist and possibly even a lucrative network television gig because of some her "choices." Just as her career was going strong, she cut back on her travel and informed her editor she would only cover football season. With a little girl at home, she explains, she did not relish spending six months of the year in professional athletes' locker rooms.

Clearly, thousands of women make choices that become self-inflicted injuries on their income potential. However, Lukas glosses over the fact that it is only a privileged minority of women who enjoy the power, resources and say-so to determine the structure of how, when and where they work. Women in high-status occupations - corporate attorneys, journalists and college professors - have the autonomy and stature to "get off the fast-track" and try to calibrate a work-family balance. The overwhelming majority of working mothers, with earnings hovering at $20, 000 or $30,000 annually, women with jobs and not careers, encounter a very different reality. Sales clerks cannot telecommute, waitresses do not decide which customers they serve, and it is supervisors, not the factory workers, who figure what days and shifts they get to work.

And, using the language of sociologists, let's get back to some of those sticky structural realities: the obstacles that even professional women with supercharged resumes cannot surmount.

First, what there is no national maternity leave program:

The United States is the only nation in the industrialized world that does not have government mandated and supported programs to provide income and supports for new parents. Currently, employers allow women to leave under disability programs and even these programs offer only the modest level of job protection. Under the existing guidelines, most new mothers return to work far sooner than they would like because they cannot afford to lose the income or they fear their employers would not keep their jobs for an extended period of time.

Second, there is a dearth of affordable childcare. In the United States, the only people who receive subsidized childcare are welfare recipients. And one has to wonder about the logic of the federal government subsidizing child care vouchers -which pay about a minimum wage for marginal child care services at best - so that women can earn the minimum wage in the labor force. Would it not make more sense to permit welfare mothers with babies and toddlers to stay home with their children, and just funnel all the money the government is willing to spend directly to the poorest families. Such a policy might reduce the nation's levels of childhood poverty, which also ranks among the highest for the industrialized countries.

The best research on day-care suggests that it is just fine, if not great, as long at it is high-quality. Unfortunately, high-end day care is expensive and hard to find. For many families, daycare costs - which often rival the mortgage payments on a second home - are so prohibitive that, in a bizarre paradox, many modestly employed and educated mothers with young children find they cannot afford to work.

To my way of thinking, the most troubling feature of this critique on the 77-cents- to-a dollar statistic, and the reason that Ms. Lukas may be very premature in her celebration of women's achievements, is that men still seem to be utterly unburdened by these liberating choices. Where are the men losing sleep at night because they worry taking that latest promotion means being away from the kids or who complain that toiling in the executive suites of the soul-destroying corporate world? Let's make a deal, if the time ever comes when there are books about the latest backlash in the workplace, led by men who are "opting out" of high-powered careers, then, and only then, should we retire the bar charts and stop talking about the numbers.