In Saturday’s presidential debate, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders rehashed his plans to Make America Great Again.  Among those plans was the promise to create “pay equity for women workers,” citing that women make 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns.  This has been a recurring theme throughout the Sanders campaign:

Of course, it seems preposterous that women could be earning a mere 4/5ths of what males earn as a result of discrimination, right?  In short, yes.  It is as preposterous as it is false: very much so.  Aside from the fact that Sanders pays women in his office $21,730 less than the men he employs (???), the 23-cent “wage gap” is–or at least should be–universally accepted as a hyperbolized myth.

Unfortunately for Mr. Sanders, the wage gap can not be remedied by any politician–because it is created by factors that can only be controlled by workers themselves.  Perhaps this explains why the most outspoken champions of ending the wage gap–SandersClinton, and Obama–all employ the very wage gap they vilify (47.6%28%, and 13%, respectively).  Clearly (at least, hopefully), Democrats are not purposely discriminating against females as a result of their malevolence.  Rather, the wage gap–in nearly all instances–is a consequence of the various choices that females tend to make.  Thus, the problem with vilifying the wage gap is made clear: it is wrong to blame sexism for the 23-cent wage gap, as it is simply the difference between the median earnings of men and women employed full time, blatantly ignoring fundamental differences such as hours worked, career choices, and family roles.

The wage gap that all ostensible pay equity champions refer to is found in a 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis that explores women’s earnings in comparison to men’s.  And yes, in the first paragraph, the BLS plainly states that there is, in fact, a gender-induced wage gap of 23 cents.  Before jumping to conclusions, however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics concedes that they do “not control for many factors that can be significant in explaining earnings differences.”  This is crucial when exploring the severity of such a gap, and the attention that needs to be paid to its repercussions.

So, what are these “factors” that make women earn 23 percent less than men?

The first factor that affects annual earnings is hours worked.  In the BLS study that Democrats praise, “full-time” employment is simply defined as working 35 hours or more per week.  This is a problem when comparing the wages of men and women for two reasons.

First, it ignores part-time workers.  This is especially important when pitting the sexes against one another because women are twice as likely as men–26% to 13%–to work part-time jobs.  Thus, this group of part-time earners, disproportionately women, are wholly unaccounted for in the BLS study.

Second, the collectivization of all full-time workers as “individuals who work 35 hours or more” can be problematic when considering wage differences because it ignores the difference in hours worked past 35.  Pew finds that 26% of “full-time” men say they work more than 40 hours per week compared with 14% of women.

The Harvard Business Review analyzed a comparison of hours worked by women to men and found that whereas 29% of fathers are likely to work 50 or more hours a week, a measly 9% of mothers are likely to do the same (the findings are similarly true for non-parents, as well).

hoursgap2Further, the very BLS report that Democrats get their 23-cent statistic from says that men, in general, are significantly more likely than women to work excessively long hours.

In the BLS study, full-time earners may be defined as individuals who work 35 hours or more.  But to say that those who work a 35-hour work week should earn the same amount as those who work 60 hours a week is simply absurd.  A comparison of “full-time” workers subtly ignores the disparities between such full-time workers, thus ignoring a significant reason for differences in earnings.

A second factor that could possibly explain the alleged unfairness that seems to affect half of America’s workforce is career choices.  The 77-cent figure that politicians abhor does not control for what jobs individuals take, only how much they make.  This is the equivalent of comparing the earnings of a 16-year old sandwich artist at Subway to a brain surgeon with 14 years of post-secondary education under his or her belt.  Clearly, a declaration of age-based discrimination on the basis that they are both full-time workers seems absurd, yet this is the exact methodology used in the BLS study–and abused by its worshippers.

Simply put, there is a disproportionate amount of males in high-earning jobs, and conversely, a disproportionate amount of females in low-paying professions.  To understand this, look to research from Anthony Carnevale:

Therefore, one reason that there is a disparity in pay between genders is because there is a gender-based disparity in willingness to get lucrative degrees.

Some say that it is actually our society’s powerful sexist stereotypes that steer women into low-paying careers.  But are American women really as confined to these stereotypes as their unnecessary protectors claim?  Any egalitarian society ought to recognize that women are capable of understanding and acting upon their preferences, regardless of what their “sexist” society tells them.  In order to be correct, proponents of such an argument need to explicitly show–not just dogmatically assert–that women are not free to make the choices they want to make.

Lastly, family roles have a significant impact on earnings, and thus, disparities between men and women.  According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of mothers say that being a working parent has made it more difficult for them to advance in their career. Conversely, a mere 16% of fathers say the same is true for them.

Parenthood and Career Advancement

Whether or not sexism has reinforced the gender stereotypes that urge women to stay at home with children is an argument I will not delve deeper into.  But regardless, can we really blame a 23-cent wage gap on our society’s expectation for women in family settings?  Surely, we trust our society–and the competency of our women–more than that.

Time Magazine found that when women under 30 are unmarried and childless, they often outperform their male counterparts, sometimes by as much as 20%.  This is because being a parent costs a lot; whether that cost be found in time, money, or anything else.

Mothers, More than Fathers, Experience Career Interruptions

As women are more likely to prioritize the well-being of their child over their career, the impacts that a child has on career advancement are likely to be exacerbated.  It is unfortunate that mothers disproportionately choose to stay home with children, but it is not the result of sexism.  Discrimination is not the cause of a 23-cent disparity among genders. Rather, the willingness of America’s women to take time off for family matters has understandably caused a lack of work-related income for such women.

The wage gap’s existence, all in all, makes no practical sense.  After all, if women can be employed for 23 percent less than men for the exact same work, why would any employer ever bother to hire men?  If discrimination is really the cause of such an income disparity, would it not be identified, stopped, and remedied by one of the numerous laws we have put in place to prevent such discrimination?

The Equal Pay Act was passed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, making it illegal to pay men and women different salaries for similar work.  In 2009, President Barack Obama passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which, in practice, does the exact same thing.  Now, the Paycheck Fairness Act has been proposed, which would “address the male–female income disparity in the United States.”  Oddly enough, numerous laws regarding equal pay for equal work have been debated, passed, and enacted again and again. So how is it, 50 years and 2 laws later, that we still have the need for more of them?  The reason for this is simple: no law–no matter how great–can control the uncontrollable, and no politician–no matter how seemingly sympathetic–can change the occupations that men and women desire.

After all, if Sanders, Clinton, and Obama are champions of the “pro-choice” movement, why are they so quick to demand that women seek occupations contrary to their interests?

Nothing in this analysis suggests that gender discrimination doesn’t exist.  The Association of University Women–a group dedicated to advancing women’s progress–found that when all other variables are controlled, the wage gap narrows to somewhere around 6.6%.  When asked how much of that 6.6% could be attributable to actual discrimination, AAUW spokesperson Lisa Maatz said, “We are still trying to figure that out.”

Thus, at worst, discrimination has caused a 6.6% disparity between women’s and men’s earnings.  If this is the case, I concede it is 6.6% too much and must be remedied in whatever way possible.  But still, I wonder, does dogmatically exaggerating the severity of such a wage gap achieve any meaningful change?  I would argue that it only delegitimizes the very movement such individuals involve themselves in.

Feminism does not demand that women make choices contrary to their interests.  True feminism, rather, embraces the choices that females make–regardless of their repercussions.  Feminism should not critique women for making less than men if their reduced income is a consequence of them following their career interests.  Ironically enough, those who encourage women to freely make choices–despite society’s expectations–ought to embrace the 23% wage gap, as it is primarily a result of the choices that women voluntarily make.


Connor Rothschild

Hi! My name is Connor Rothschild. I’m an 18-year-old currently studying Economics and Social Policy Analysis at Rice University in Houston, Texas. I’m passionate about impacting people through policy change, usually via the human-centered design process. You can catch me drinking 6 cups of coffee in a given day, reading The Economist between those cups, and playing with my dog Lucy.

Thanks for visiting!

Connor Rothschild

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