04/05/2007 03:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Whose Bargain? Whose Choices?

Why are women willing to fight against legal protections for women in the workplace? A majority of women are in the workforce, and there is solid evidence that women face systematic discrimination. But there are always those who insist that women's disadvantages are all about choice. In "A Bargain at 77 Cents to a Dollar," Carrie Lukas claims that "all the relevant factors that affect pay - occupation, experience, seniority, education, and hours worked - are ignored" in discussions of the wage gap. It must be nice to be able to ignore the evidence that social scientists have been accumulating for decades. Research on the effects of each of these "relevant factors" has consistently found that they cannot explain the wage gap. Even when men and women work the same hours in the same occupations and have the same amount of work experience, education, training, and seniority, women still earn less than men. While the wage gap is often smaller when "the comparison is truly between men and women in equivalent roles," it is inequitable nonetheless. And sometimes the gap is actually larger - research shows that inequality between men and women in the same jobs is greatest in high-paying positions, where managers have more discretion over pay rates and they use that discretion to pay men more. In my research on securities professionals, women earned 29% less than men in the same jobs with the same credentials, experience, and hours.

Of course, men and women don't always work in equivalent jobs and occupations dominated by women pay less than male-dominated occupations with similar credentials, skill levels, and working conditions. But if credentials, skill levels, and working conditions are similar, then what is the justification for paying women's jobs less than men's jobs? Most social science suggests that it is organizational customs and the cultural devaluation of women that leads to this difference. That's not my definition of equity.

Interestingly, Lukas claims that men "disproportionately take on the dirtiest, most dangerous and depressing jobs." I wonder how Lukas has decided which occupations fit these descriptions. There are plenty of jobs dominated by women that are dirty (nurses come to mind), dangerous (sex worker), and depressing (social work).

Lukas also argues that "surveys have shown for years that women tend to place a higher priority on flexibility and personal fulfillment than do men, who focus more on pay." It would be interesting to know which surveys she is citing, since most research on job satisfaction finds that men and women value the same qualities in paid employment, with pay, autonomy, and responsibility at the top of the list. In order to justify their lot in life, people also learn to accept and value what they have. So any differences could reflect post-hoc justifications for staying in particular jobs despite their lack of remuneration. This makes it all the more striking men and women tend to say they value the same things in paid work.

Lukas then talks about the trade-offs that men and women make in paid work. The reality of many women's lives, especially women with children - many of whom are single - is that they have to "avoid jobs that require travel or relocation," and "take more time off and spend fewer hours in the office than men do." Lukas portrays this as a choice, and many would agree with her, but I doubt that it feels like a choice to most women. Do men choose to travel a lot, relocate, and work long hours - or is this structured by the workplace rather than by people's choices? Carrie Lukas says that this is all about choice - at least in her case and those of "hundreds of thousands of women" like her. And then there's the nasty issue of the facts again: systematic research using large random samples has demonstrated that jobs dominated by women actually have less scheduling flexibility and autonomy, and larger penalties for taking time off, than jobs dominated by men. Obviously many women work in low-wage jobs where flexibility is far from a reality, so what advantages lead women to choose these low-paying jobs? Perhaps Lukas isn't thinking about low-wage workers when she talks about "women."

Carrie Lukas is worried that the Women's Equality Amendment and Hillary Clinton's Paycheck Fairness Act would give "Washington bureaucrats more power to oversee how wages are determined" and that this would make workplaces less flexible for women like her. But there is evidence that manager accountability for non-discrimination can lead women to rise to higher levels within organizations. My research with Doug Guthrie found that equal employment opportunity laws make a measurable difference in the likelihood of women moving to the top of U.S. organizations. And recent research shows that women managers improve employment outcomes for women below them in the hierarchy - possibly increasing, not decreasing, flexibility. So even if we agree with Lukas that we're "better off not feeling like victims," why wouldn't we want anti-discrimination legislation with some teeth?