There has been an interesting discussion over at Andrew Sullivan's blog on individual choice and the gender wage gap, so I figured I'd add some context and some further thoughts.
There is no doubt that the gender wage gap has narrowed over the past several decades. Full-time working women now make 80 percent of what their male counterparts make -- a figure that is likely to increase as male-dominated manufacturing jobs become increasingly obsolete.
In spite of this progress, though, there remains an enormous income disparity between the sexes. What could be causing this inequality?
The challenge for social scientists has been determining what portion of the 20 percent wage gap is due to discrimination, and what portion is due to individual life decisions. A simple, side-by-side comparison doesn't tell you much about discrimination. It only tells you that there is a gender disparity, which could be explained by any number of things.
One way to address the discrimination question is to use a statistical technique called regression analysis that holds other variables constant in considering the impact of gender on wages. This technique is sometimes called gender-wage"decomposition." When social scientists use regression to control for other relevant job factors -- the number of hours worked, for example -- the wage gap between men and women narrows dramatically, but does not disappear.
The most reasonable conclusion to draw from this is that many individual-level choices contribute to wage differences between men and women in the aggregate. Discrimination may account for some small portion of that difference, but it certainly not all of it.
Of course, this doesn't quite settle the controversy.
A far more complicated question for policymakers is whether women's choices are really independent, or simply a function of the social pressures and cultural dynamics that unwittingly drive many of our actions. Do women who choose to work fewer hours so that they can spend more time at home with their children make this choice freely, or does society compel them to make it?
There are no easy answers to this question. People are is complex, and "society" is far from monolithic. We can't quantify the millions of subtle forces that influence our decisions and bias our perceptions. We don't know what causes some men to choose work over family and some women to choose family over work. We also don't know what causes some women to choose a work over family and some men to choose family over work.
One thing that we do know, however, is that men will never have to endure the months of physical and emotional misery associated with pregnancy. Men will never have to experience the pain of childbirth, or the stress of waking up night after night to breast-feed a newborn baby. And because of this -- ironically and unfairly -- men will always be paid higher wages.
No matter how much society progresses, the gender wage gap will never vanish completely. There will always be some women who choose to have children, and these women will have to make sacrifices for that child that a father will never have to make. This doesn't mean that men shouldn't take on more responsibility for raising children. But, in the aggregate, full-time working women who become pregnant will miss more workdays, be less productive, and see a marginal decline in wages as a result.
I'm not sure whether this is fair or not, but I simply can't see any fair way to correct the problem. We can give women the option not to have children, and attempt to remove any stigma that may be attached to the "career woman" or the stay-at-home dad. Beyond that, I don't know how to proceed without simply generating further inequity.
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