Monday, April 30, 2007

The Truth About the Pay Gap
What we know from an array of evidence, including this report, is that most if not all of the discrepancy can be traced to factors other than sexism. When it comes to pay equity, we really have come a long way.

On its face, the evidence in the AAUW study looks damning. "One year out of college," it says, "women working full-time earn only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues earn. Ten years after graduation, women fall farther behind, earning only 69 percent as much as men earn."

But read more, and you learn things that don't get much notice on Equal Pay Day. As the report acknowledges, women with college degrees tend to go into fields like education, psychology and the humanities, which typically pay less than the sectors preferred by men, such as engineering, math and business. They are also more likely than men to work for nonprofit groups and local governments, which do not offer salaries that Alex Rodriguez would envy.

As they get older, many women elect to work less so they can spend time with their children. A decade after graduation, 39 percent of women are out of the work force or working part time -- compared with only 3 percent of men. When these mothers return to full-time jobs, they naturally earn less than they would have if they had never left.
. . .
Buried in the report is a startling admission: "After accounting for all factors known to affect wages, about one-quarter of the gap remains unexplained and may be attributed to discrimination" (my emphasis). Another way to put it is that three-quarters of the gap clearly has innocent causes -- and that we actually don't know whether discrimination accounts for the rest.

I asked Harvard economist Claudia Goldin if there is sufficient evidence to conclude that women experience systematic pay discrimination. "No," she replied. There are certainly instances of discrimination, she says, but most of the gap is the result of different choices. Other hard-to-measure factors, Goldin thinks, largely account for the remaining gap -- "probably not all, but most of it."
I'm glad to see this come to light. Perhaps someone has the statistic (can't go hunting for it with exams around the corner) for childless women - but the gap is minuscule! It could easily be explained by the different career paths noted above, such as going into teaching and the arts. I also attribute it partially to women's aversion to salary negotiations, a difference that has been documented and needs addressing by colleges and women's groups. We could overcome this aversion with a little work.

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