Last year, the United Kingdom mandated that businesses with more than 250 employees report their “gender pay gap” — namely the difference between the wage of the average male worker and average female worker — and make that information publicly available. Initial analyses suggest that the gender pay gap in the UK is roughly the same as the gap in the United States: women (on average) earn roughly eighty percent of what men (on average) earn.
In the United States, liberal politicians, from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to former President Obama and many others, tend to describe this gap as a result of direct, gender-based discrimination. The idea that employers pay female workers roughly twenty percent less than they pay men for the same work is an entirely ignorant reading of the gender pay gap. However, there’s more nuance involved in this issue than both liberals and conservatives are willing to acknowledge.
The idea that the “US Congress thinks it’s okay for a woman to be paid less than a man at the same job” is a particularly odd claim, considering the fact that the Equal Pay Act, a law which prohibits gender-based pay discrimination, passed in 1963. Furthermore, women make different career choices than men do, often pursuing lower-paying careers or going into less lucrative industries. When adjusting for occupational choice, the gap narrows significantly. Women also tend to take time off for/after childbirth: As Vox noted, the pay gap between comparable childless men and women is near-nonexistent, while the gap widens dramatically for men and women after having their first child. Controlling for other factors, such as age and job tenure, also dramatically shrinks the wage gap. These counter arguments are not new to Lone Conservative readers.
That being said, conservatives tend to go too far when they suggest that the wage gap is (completely) a myth. First of all, the wage gap undeniably exists: the debate should be framed as whether or not it is driven by gender-based pay discrimination. But more importantly, the question conservatives rarely ask is are those mitigating factors (occupational choice, job tenure, field of study) impacted by sexism and forms of discrimination?
That might sound like social justice gobbledygook to conservatives, but consider the example of Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, and he used his power to sexually harass, abuse, and rape dozens of women. Beyond committing these atrocious crimes, Weinstein also sought to destroy the careers of these women, and often succeeded in pushing them out of the film industry. And while Weinstein is the most visible sexual predator of Hollywood, he’s by no means the only abuser in that town.
A side effect of this abuse in Hollywood is that these talented young women get their careers cut short. While it’s hard to draw empirical causation here, it would be reasonable to assume that part of the reason that there are so few female directors (7 percent), writers (13 percent), and producers (24 percent), not to mention the fact that only a quarter of films feature female leads, is that a culture of rampant sexual abuse leads many women to leave the industry.
That doesn’t look like the sort of direct “pay women less for the same job that a man does” discrimination many liberal politicians emphasize, but it sure as hell is an example of gender-based oppression that (predominantly) falls on women and has a negative impact on their ability to rise through the ranks of an industry, hence limiting their earning potential. Hollywood is an especially prominent example of this behavior, but this pattern (sexual abuse survivors facing career consequences due to their abusers’ position of relative power) is not limited to the film and entertainment industries.
Now, it’s empirically difficult to quantify the impact of such behavior on women’s earnings as a whole. There’s a strong case to be made that most of the wage gap can still be explained away by voluntary, unimpeded decisions women make regarding career and family. However, when conservatives dismiss the wage gap as “a myth” outright, we neglect the work that still needs to be done to advance equality of opportunity in the workplace.