Pay Gap Myths

Stephanie Zvan is talking about what she calls the “Myth of the Pay Gap Myth”. Essentially, a number of people have commented that when we actually run the numbers, we reveal that the long-standing feminist talking point of the “Pay Gap” is revealed to be a myth. The purpose of Zvan’s post is to argue that the stance that the Pay Gap is a myth is, in fact, a myth itself, and thus the Pay Gap is real.

In order to assess this, I think we need to untangle the various positions wrt the Pay Gap. The classic Pay Gap is the idea that women are paid less for doing the same work as men. Which has thus led to the common slogan of “Equal pay for equal work”. This implies — and many of the personal anecdotes have specifically claimed — that if you have a man and a woman working the same job and the same hours with the same experience, the woman will be paid dramatically less. Thus, when we get claims like “Women only make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men!” the context implies that this is true for that case; a woman can be doing exactly what a man can be doing and be paid 23 cents on the dollar less, on average, than him.

This was always a suspect notion, as many pay equity claims, in order to make their case and attempt to bridge the Pay Gap, had to do so not through anti-discrimination measures, but through reclassification of fields into “equivalent” fields, where arguably the female-dominated field was the same as the male dominated field but was paid less only because it was female-dominated. This immediately raises suspicions that if you have a man and a woman working the exact same job the Pay Gap isn’t all that significant. And the latest charges — as seen in the quotes in Zvan’s article — are attacking this notion, pointing out that when you do compare men and women working the same job, same hours and with the same experience and performance the difference shrinks to almost nothing.

Zvan concedes this part, and this to me seems sufficient to make a claim that the Pay Gap, as outlined above, is indeed a myth. What Zvan is going after is a possible implication of that, which is that therefore the main reason for the gap in salaries is due to the choices of men and women, and that therefore there is no systemic discrimination to deal with. But at least here we can conclude that any solution that is based on assuming that companies pay men and women different amounts just because they are men and women is a non-starter, because that’s not the problem. As we shall see, the big difference here is going to be over social expectations, not over explicitly sexist policies.

While Zvan lists a number of things that impede the progress of women in the workplace at the end of the post, the two big things she will focus on are the impact of a lack of flexible schedules and of rewarding working overtime on the issue. Thus, to make her case, Zvan needs to both show that women have no real choice with regards to those aspects and that those aspects aren’t legitimately better for business, which she will somewhat attempt to do, in a bit of a haphazard manner, which makes it really difficult to organize my response. I’ll start with the idea that this isn’t a choice for women, and then work into if these things are a legitimate business requirement after that. This means I’ll likely jump around a bit in her post, which hopefully won’t be too confusing.

Zvan, as it turns out, won’t really make a case that allowing flexible work schedules is a huge boon to businesses, but she will focus on demonstrating that requiring a more flexible work schedule is a need and not a choice for women:

First, even though women work fewer paid hours than men, they work the same number of hours overall. The reason women more frequently require constrained work weeks and more flexibility in their schedules is that they do the bulk of the unpaid work that makes our society run, particularly caregiving, both for children and for other adults.

Zvan uses a study of the relationships talking about parental leave — mostly after childbirth — and the differences in the pay impacts of those countries, summarizing it this way:

At first glance, European results would seem to suggest a preference for childcare over other types of work in women. These subsidies sometimes worsen wage disparity by increasing the amount of time women spend outside the labor market (pdf). In Sweden, however, some of that subsidy can only be received as paternal leave. This helps men overcome the stigma of taking time off work, childcare labor is more evenly shared, and the contribution of childcare to pay inequities is eliminated.

This seems to overstate the case a bit, as while pushing for quotas on parental leave that has to be taken by the father seems to have had an impact, it’s not equal enough or had been going on long enough to indicate that the childcare part of pay inequities has been eliminated (even in the study, there’s a lot of “may” language around there). But despite the rather underwhelming empirical evidence — again, even the study doesn’t want to say that this is really the case — the underlying argument is sound: if being on call all hours of the day and working more hours is seen as a benefit to an employer, women who face more pressure to take care of children and of the family as a whole are not going to be able to do that. Thus, they will be at least seen as less valuable to their employer and won’t get the raises assigned to those who show greater loyalty or even who can put in the hours to develop themselves or jump on big opportunities that require the extra time. And it is certainly reasonable to say that women feel far greater pressure to look after the personal family matters than men do. Some of this is due to societal pressure based on the old patriarchal expectations, and some of it is just a result of the fact that women tend to be the person in the relationship with the lower salary and so it is more reasonable for them to risk their job or salary advancement than it is for the man, which comes both from the “Pay Gap” and also from the social tendency that finds it more acceptable for a woman to marry a man who makes more than she does than the inverse.

But as we saw last week these social pressures also have an impact on men. While women will feel more pressure to pick up that unpaid labour, men will feel more pressure to maximize and maximize the worth of their paid labour. Thus, if a situation comes up where there is a choice between, say, putting one’s family responsibilities aside for something that will improve their perception — and thus future pay — at work, women will feel strong social pressure to focus on the family responsibilities and pass on the employment opportunities while men will feel strong social pressure to take up the employment opportunity at the expense of their family responsibilities. In short, we allow the excuse of “I had to work” more for men than we do for women, but it’s also seen as more acceptable if a woman says “I had to look after the children” than it is for men (although that is changing).

Thus, when it comes to choice, neither men and women really have choices here. Well, of course, in a sense they do, but they both face strong and diametrically opposed social pressures wrt them. Men, as the presumptive primary provider, will always face pressure to take a job that maximizes their earning potential, which means that they will always tend to put earning potential ahead of any other factor. Thus, as long as they are capable of doing it, men will make choices to maximize that potential no matter how many hours they have to work or how crappy the job is. Yes, there are differing levels of motivation and cost/benefit associations, but in general men are socially conditioned to lean to the side of making more money and getting a better and more stable job. Even with the feminist influence on society, the same is not true for women. The strongest feminist motivation for higher wages and higher paying jobs is essentially a “I’ll show them!” motivation, proving that she is as good or better than the men she works with. This isn’t a motivation that, I think, can motivate most people; most people just want a good life and don’t care that much about proving themselves to others except when it comes down to direct confrontation. The other motivation is for a fulfilling job, but for that the qualities of the job beyond simple pay are a more important factor. If the job is too demanding, then it isn’t fulfilling, and women have little reason to accept an unfulfilling job just because it happens to pay more.

Ironically, this distinction might mean that the insistence on the constant discussion of the points Zvan makes at the end actually makes things worse for the pay gap. Men are more likely to accept worse consequences — even to the point of having to fight discrimination — in order to get more pay, while women are less likely to do so. So men, arguably, are more willing to fight through discrimination as long as they believe that they can succeed in order to get a higher paying job than women are. So if one constantly says that there is a terrible amount of sexism and harassment in a field, this will discourage women from going into that field even if they, in actuality, could easily handle that level of sexism and harassment. They have less of an external motive for going into in anyway than men do. When it comes to racial discrimination, it seems to me that a big factor there is that many people who might face racial discrimination in certain fields think that it will be so strong that they simply won’t be able to succeed, and so they settle for the highest paying job they think they can get. But if those men thought they could achieve it, they would be willing to face more problems in order to do so.

Thus, the social pressures push men and women apart on the overall average pay scale, as men feel social pressure to maximize pay while women feel social pressure to, at least, minimize the impact their job has on their family responsibilities. Both need to be addressed, and while arguably forcing men to take parental leave can work to break that up, that can have other issues, including ones of practicality. But it is clear that if women are to be said to not really have choices in that regard, neither do men.

Okay, so finally let’s look at whether these companies are, in fact, really reasonable in asking for the main things Zvan focuses on and thus rewarding people who are willing to do it over those who aren’t, because if they are being reasonable then one of the big thrusts of her post is lost. Again, she doesn’t really argue that for flexible work schedules, but she does try to argue that overtime isn’t actually a benefit. She starts by characterizing why employers are pushing for overtime more lately:

Let’s look at the math. If you’re an employer who offers decent benefits, those benefits typically cost roughly the same as your direct payment for labor. In other words, a $20 hourly pay rate actually costs you $40 an hour. But benefit costs don’t grow much with additional time worked. Hours of time-and-a-half overtime at $30 look like a steal when you compare them to hiring another employee at $40 for each regular-time hour.

The first thing to note about this is that it has the implication that one of the best ways to eliminate this part of the gap is to look at how much benefits cost. If we could reduce the cost of benefits — or even offer less — then this wouldn’t be seen as being cost-effective anymore, and they’d just hire more people. So perhaps the real problem is that benefits are too generous for how much they cost, encouraging employers to find ways around that, including paying overtime which starts at time and a half.

The second thing to note is that this ignores the previously stated point that workers who work more overtime and are willing to work less flexible schedules get paid more in terms of base salary than those who won’t. Her own source insists that for salaried employees this can be in the range of twice as much. At that rate, Zvan’s argument that they are trying to save money by not hiring someone seems a little shaky. And this is the key to her argument, as she concludes:

If long hours happen often enough in your business to treat working them as critical, it’s time to hire more employees.

So we need to examine if the solution to most of the overtime seems to be, in fact, simply to hire more people.

So let’s start with manufacturing jobs. Most of them are shift work — and unionized — and so both flexible schedules and overtime pay gets complicated. Since much of the work is dependent on the operations of the entire factory, it’s not possible for someone to, say, show up at 5 and leave at 2. At 5, they’d either be joining the previous shift or, if it is the downtime between shifts, standing around doing very little. This also holds if they want to work a little overtime, as coming in at 5 and then trying to work until 7 to get 4 hours overtime in a day isn’t going to be, at least in general, very cost effective for the company. So the most cost effective way for a company to use overtime to replace hiring another employee would be to have them work two shifts in a day instead of just one. But to do that, you either need to have someone who can do that constantly over the long haul or you need to try to do that for an entire shift. Neither really works. So instead, manufacturing overtime, in my experience, has been either for jobs that are mostly independent — where you have two or so people who can work on their own without relying on anyone else and both are willing to work overtime — or as temporary replacements on later shifts — when people can’t come in or someone suddenly quits — or for things that need to be done but that can’t be done while things are running, like maintenance. None of these are things that you can easily hire someone else to do, since they won’t be full-time positions or will be only limited positions … or both.

But what about service jobs, like wait staff, fast food, or department stores? Well, the good news here is that these jobs tend to have more “shifts” available, and so tend to have more flexible hours. You can’t come in to work too long before the store or restaurant opens, but the stores don’t tend to have such long shifts and so someone can work as long as the place is open. The problem for Zvan’s argument here is that that flexibility lends itself greatly to part-time work, and as far as I know both in the United States and in Canada — as well as in a number of places around the world — the benefit requirements are lower for part-time workers than they are for full-time workers. Thus — and we’ve seen this in these sorts of jobs over and over again — the most cost effective way is to replace full-time workers with part-time workers, not demand overtime. Thus, the only time a company will push for overtime in these cases is for particularly important workers or particularly important times, such as having your experienced person in the department around longer so that they can answer the questions of customers and tell each employee as they come on shift what needs to be done, or to work a few extra hours because the busy time is constantly a couple of hours what would be a reasonable leaving time. Again, neither of these cases are ones where you can simply hire someone else to step in when the other person has to leave.

Also, it is interesting to note that in my experience, at least in Canada, companies don’t seem to be doing this. Instead, they tend to be simply not having people on staff in the off-hours. As someone who tends to try to arrive for opening almost everywhere I go, I tend to see departments or cashes having no one working at them, even when it would be useful for them to have someone there in order to make sales. “Just hire someone” doesn’t seem to be workable and they, at least, don’t seem to feel that they lose enough business to bother staffing those areas, with overtime employees or not.

So, what about salaried employees? That’s the focus of Zvan’s source here, but it doesn’t seem to work either. The problem is that salaried employees tend to be judged on productivity rather than on hours worked. In general, there are a number of things that need to get done by a certain time, and they don’t really care how many hours you work as long as those things get done. In software design, this is always a number of “features” that the company has either promised to customers or that they feel they need to make sales. If you can get them done without working overtime, great, but if you need overtime to get them done and working with few enough bugs then that’s what’s “expected”. In Canada, they aren’t actually allowed to ask you to work overtime — since you don’t get paid for it — but they are allowed to note that you didn’t get your work done on your performance review. And a lot of the time this overtime is pushed either by market pressures or by things just not working out the way you’d expect. But hiring someone else isn’t always an answer. You can’t claim that adding one person to a feature will reduce the time it takes to complete it by that person’s person hours because software design doesn’t work that way. And sometimes you don’t need another full-time person, but you just need a few more hours a week to catch up on it. Hiring a full-time person for that job doesn’t work. In addition, it may be the case that there is specific knowledge required to do those things effectively, knowledge that a new person won’t have.

It seems to me that most of the salaried positions are like that, but there are exceptions. The one I constantly hear about is nursing, where hospitals and the like are understaffed. But in these cases, the issue is not that they can’t handle adding a salary and benefits, but that there is no room in the budget to add another salary, making Zvan’s argument irrelevant to them.

While there are likely some cases where businesses say that they can save the benefits by getting someone to work overtime rather than hiring someone else, I can’t see that as being the major driving factor behind the increase in overtime, and Zvan provides no evidence that this is indeed the main factor beyond a shaky argument. But even if we accept all of Zvan’s comments that it is this cost analysis that is driving this and that it is wrong because it doesn’t include the loss of productivity of workers working overtime, we can still ask if an employee who is willing to do this when necessary is more valuable than an employee who isn’t and thus should be paid accordingly? After all, even if we accept Zvan’s reasoning there will always be situations where overtime would be necessary or beneficial to the company, and so should we reward employees whose schedules are more flexible to the company’s needs and who can work more hours when required more than those who can’t? Are these employees really more valuable to the company?

Well, given that, it seems obvious that they are. Even if they aren’t regularly working more hours, and even if they regularly take advantage of flexible work schedules, an employee who can shift their schedule when required or who can work more hours when required is a more valuable employee, all other things being equal. They can fill in when someone gets sick or can’t come in. They can get more things done. They have an easier time arranging things so that they can attend important meetings or meet with important customers or fix something to get a customer up and running at a critical time. Yes, flexible working hours are a benefit for employees but a flexible employee is a benefit for customers. So while we can argue over specific uses/demands for inflexible work schedules and overtime, in general an employee willing to work inflexible work schedules and overtime when required is the more valuable employee. So companies, it seems to me, are doing right to reward those employees who are willing to and able to do that; the only debate here is over whether companies ought to be encouraging/asking for it as often as they are, which is another discussion.

So, in summary, the idea that men and women working the same job with the same experience get paid significantly differently is indeed a myth. However, there are a host of social pressures working on men and women that encourage men to put in the time and effort to maximize their pay while encouraging women to minimize the impact their jobs have on their family life. These social pressures are, indeed, probably the biggest factor driving the overall difference in take-home pay between men and women, and neither men nor women have any greater choice due to those social factors. So it is indeed far too simplistic to ascribe this gap to simple “choice”, but also too simple to ascribe it to simple “sexism”, where that only looks at the responsibilities of women. In order to solve this, we need to solve the idea that the main contribution of men to the household is their salary and that the woman’s salary is secondary to her family responsibilities. Until we do that, the choices will still be made the same way and the gap will never close.

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4 Responses to “Pay Gap Myths”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Excellent work!

    In order to solve this, we need to solve the idea that the main contribution of men to the household is their salary and that the woman’s salary is secondary to her family responsibilities.

    Here’s the question: When we look at the general state of all of human history up to now…should we?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      My answer? For a family to work, you need the financial part and the non-financial part. How that gets divided up should be based on the capabilities of the parents, not decided a priori based on gender. So if it makes sense for the man to focus on earning the highest salary possible and the woman to focus on the family responsibilities, then that’s what should be done. But if it makes sense that the woman focus on salary and the man on family responsibilities, then THAT’S what should be done. And if it makes more sense for all of this to be divided evenly, then THAT’S what should be done. And this has to be done that way because we know that there are some women who have a higher earning potential than some men they might end up in a relationship and some men who are better at the family responsibilities than their partner would be, and so artificially dividing it up isn’t good, and that idea above is what creates that artificial distinction.

      That being said, I’ve been musing lately that it seems to me that the answer to complaints about this sort of wage gap/need of child care/need of flexible work schedules is really that we need to make it that one salary — whomever makes it — is enough to raise a family on again.

      • malcolmthecynic Says:

        I mean, it seems that what you’re deciding…we can already do that. That people don’t, I’m not sure what to do about – or if we should.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I think it reasonable to say that the social pressures do exist, on both sides … and particularly for men. I think that right now, in our culture, women are pressured to do both and men are still pressured to maximize salaried earnings. That’s … not good.

        Now, what to DO about it is another question, of course, but I think that it would be a good idea to get into culture the idea that this is all about mutual choice as opposed to old patriarchal idea of “no choice” and the new feministic idea of “woman choice as long as she makes the right choice”.

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