A 2006 article in the New York Times cited labor department statistics that, for college-educated women in middle adulthood, the gender pay gap had widened during the previous decade. The phenomenon was attributed partly to discrimination, but also to “women’s own choices. The number of women staying home with young children has risen …. especially among highly educated mothers, who might otherwise be earning high salaries.”
A 2007 report from the American Association of University Women sounded the alarm about a continuing wage gap that is evident even in the first year after college graduation. The authors noted, however, that individual choices with respect to college major, occupation, and parenthood have a strong impact on the gap. Accepting the idea that much of the pay gap can be accounted for by such neutral factors as experience and training, they concluded that, in the first year after college graduation, about 5 percent of the pay gap is unexplained by such factors—and it is that 5 percent that represents the impact of discrimination.
The language attributing women’s lower pay to their own lifestyle choices is seductive—in an era when women are widely believed to have overcome the most serious forms of discrimination and in a society in which we are fond of emphasizing individual responsibility for life outcomes. Indeed, it is possible to point to a variety of ways in which women’s work lives differ from men’s in ways that might justify gender differences in earnings. Women work in lower-paid occupations; on average they work fewer paid hours per week and fewer paid weeks per year than men do; their employment is more likely than men’s to be discontinuous. As many economists with a predilection for the “human capital model” would argue, women as a group make lower investments in their working lives, so they logically reap fewer rewards.
At first blush, this argument sounds reasonable. However, a closer look reveals that the language of “choice” obscures larger social forces that maintain the wage gap and the very real constraints under which women labor. The impact of discrimination, far from being limited to the portion of the wage gap that cannot be accounted for by women’s choices, is actually deeply embedded in and constrains these choices.
Do women choose lower-paid occupations?
Women continue to be clustered in low-paid occupational categories: office and administrative support and various service jobs. While they now make up a majority of university students, they are concentrated in academic specialties that lead to lower paid occupations: education rather than engineering, for example. If women persist in choosing work that is poorly paid, shouldn’t the responsibility for the wage gap be laid squarely at their own doorstep?
Actually, within groups graduating with particular academic majors, women earn less than men, as illustrated in the AAUW report cited above. And within occupational categories, women earn less than their male counterparts, as revealed in this chart.
Furthermore, there is a catch-22 embedded in women’s occupational choices: the migration of women into an occupation is associated with a lowering of its status and salary, and defining an occupation as requiring stereotypically masculine skills is associated with higher prestige, salary, and discrimination in favor of male job applicants. So convincing women in large numbers to shift their occupational choices is unlikely to obliterate the earnings gap.
As well, using the language of choice to refer to women’s career outcomes tacitly ignores the many subtle constraints on such decisions. From childhood onward, we view media that consistently portray men more often than women in professional occupations and in masculine-stereotyped jobs. Not surprisingly, researchers find that the more TV children watch, the more accepting they are of occupational gender stereotypes. Why does the acceptance of gender stereotypes matter? Gender-stereotyped messages about particular skills (e.g., “males are generally better at this than females”) lower women’s beliefs in their competence—even when they perform at exactly the same level as their male counterparts. In such situations, women’s lower confidence in their abilities translates into a reluctance to pursue career paths that require such abilities.
So, there are many problems with treating women’s occupational choices as based purely on individual temperament and as occurring within a static occupational system that is unaffected by such choices. Women’s employment choices are systematically channeled and constrained—and when women elude the constraints and flow into previously male-dominated jobs, the system apparently adapts to keep those jobs low-paid.
If women chose to work more hours, would they close the gap?
Women work fewer paid hours per week than men do, but among workers who labor more than 40 hours per week, women earn less than men. Indeed, among workers working 60 hours or more per week at their primary job, women earned only 82% of men’s median weekly earnings in 2006. Furthermore, women do not necessarily choose to work fewer hours than men do. One researcher found that 58% of workers want to change their work hours in some way—and that 19% of women report they want the opportunity to work more hours Also, women have recently brought lawsuits against corporations such as Boeing and CBS claiming discrimination in access to overtime. Thus, in the realm of hours worked for pay, it is probably a mistake to use the number of hours worked as a simple indicator of women’s (or men’s) choices. As in the case of occupational segregation by gender, the number of hours worked reflects some systematic constraints.
Choosing parenthood means lower wages only for women.
For women, having children has a negative effect on wages, even when labor market experience is taken into account. This may be due to mothers’ temporary separation from the workforce and/or the loss of the benefits of seniority and position-specific training, experience, and contacts. Among married persons working full-time, the ratio of women’s to men’s median weekly earnings is 76.4% for those with no children under the age of 18, but only 73.6% for those with children. And when women and men of all marital statuses are considered together, women with children under 18 earn 97.1% of what women without children earn, whereas men with children under 18 earn 122% of what men without children earn.
So, the choice to have children is associated with very different earnings-related outcomes for women and men. In terms of children, it is not that women and men are making different choices, but that the same choices have very different consequences for the two groups. Those consequences reflect society’s failure to value the work of parenting. Yet, if most women decided to forego motherhood, the declining birthrate already causing concern in some parts of the developed world would soon become catastrophic.
Women’s choices are not the problem.
Individual women can sometimes evade the effects of the gender pay gap by making certain kinds of choices, such as selecting male-dominated occupations, working more hours, avoiding parenthood. However, these choices occur in an environment suffused with subtle sexism and discrimination: there are more barriers for women than for men to making certain choices, and the consequences of some choices are starkly different for women and men.
Moreover, these individual solutions are not effective on a societal level; they work only if the women enacting them remain in a minority. For example, if most women moved into jobs that are now male-dominated, signs are that the salaries associated with those jobs would likely drop. But, by making it difficult to go against the tide, the forces of discrimination ensure that most women don’t move into such jobs. And as long as a few women get past the barriers, the illusion persists that any woman could do it if she wanted to—it’s a matter of free choice. However, women’s choices will not be free until their abilities and their work are valued equally with men’s, and until women and men reap equivalent consequences for their choices in the realm of work and family.
Gender wage gap stagnant since ‘90s. The New York Times, December 24, 2006, p. 6A.
Dey, J. G. & Hill, C. (2007). Behind the pay gap. Washington DC: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (2006). Women in the labor force: A databook.http://www.bls.gov/cps/wlf-databook2005.htm
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2005). 1993/2003 Baccalaureate and beyond longitudinal study. Washington, DC. Data analysis system available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2005150
About the Author
Hilary M. Lips is a professor of psychology, chair of the Psychology Department, and director of the Center for Gender Studies at Radford University. She holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. She is the author of A New Psychology of Women: Gender, Culture and Ethnicity and of Sex and Gender: An Introduction, as well as the award-winning Women, Men and Power. Her work has been published in a number of professional journals, and she is a frequent speaker on topics related to women, power, and achievement.
To learn more about the gender wage gap, visit this section of the Center for Gender Studies website.