The gender pay ‘gap:’ inequality understood


Decades ago, I left my career for nine years. During those years I was unemployed or working part-time and took care of our children.

My goal of chairing a philosophy and religion department was left behind; my directing a school-wide required ethics course was left behind; my rank as an associate professor with tenure was left behind. In addition, any kind of appreciable salary was left behind.

For those who are interested, I’d do it again. My tombstone could have read, “Here he lies; he could have made a lot more money,” but it can read, “He cared about his family, loved his wife, and loved the boys.”

I was reminded of my history because recently newspapers and other media outlets have treated us to articles regarding women’s ostensible pay gap. For instance, USA Today ran an article entitled, “It’s women’s equal pay day, but that’s not a good thing.”

The article stated what many people believe: “The notion of bringing home 80 cents for every dollar pocketed by a man on a national basis is unsettling . . .” and referred to the gap as “a shortfall,” suggesting a lack of something expected or owed. To the credit of the USA Today, the article never claimed that women were treated differently from men.

One article opened by saying “Women in Indiana make 72 cents to the dollar that Hoosier men do on average, and they won’t see equal pay until 2082 if current trends continue, according to a new study.”

However, the widely known and properly documented gap between women and men in terms of their collectively earning money is not a pay gap. Similarly situated men and women get paid the same wage. In fact, women and men are paid the same even in that most male bastion of work — engineering.

A National Science Foundation report, “How large is the gap in salaries of male and female engineers?” released in 1995 stated that “the salary gap is primarily explained by the fact that female engineers, on average, have fewer years of experience since their first baccalaureate degree than males; salaries of female and male engineers with similar years of experience are virtually the same.”

The Government Accounting Office reported this: ”The gender pay gap — the difference between men’s and women’s average salaries — declined significantly in the federal workforce between 1988 and 2007 . . . For the three years we examined, all but 7 cents of the gap can be explained by differences in measurable factors such as the occupations of men and women and, to a lesser extent, other factors such as education levels and years of federal experience … Some or all of the remaining 7 cent gap might be explained by factors for which we lacked data or are difficult to measure, such as work experience outside the federal government.”

Finally, over two decades ago I read in the Indianapolis Star that “the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth compared people aged 27 to 33 who never had a child and found that women earned 98 percent of men’s wages.”

All of that known, people and media persist in calling the gap in earning a wage or pay “gap” and refer to it, pejoratively, as a “shortfall.” The fact that women receive, collectively, 80 cents for men’s dollar, understood collectively, is well documented, but are there reasons for the differential? If so, are the reasons good?

By asking these questions, I rely on what my students called “the Justice Tree” for analyzing policy for a policy’s or practice’s justness.

In sum, discovering an inequality, in and of itself, is not sufficient to establish an injustice. We have to investigate to determine if there are reasons for the inequality. If no reason is found, we should conclude that the policy or practice is working poorly or arbitrarily to impact some people more than others; then we should modify the policy or practice.

If we do find a reason or reasons that account for the inequality, we are still not out of the woods. At that point, we must examine the reasons. If the reasons are good, we may conclude that the policy or practice is fair. If the reasons are unconnected to the policy’s or practice’s impact, we may conclude that the policy is unjust and needs to be changed.

Are there reasons for the earnings gap between men and women? It is useful to examine occupations, since the aforementioned northern Indiana newspaper had an article on the 10 fastest-growing jobs in northwest Indiana. The list included carpenters, construction carpenters, construction laborers and coroners, three of which are performed primarily by men because of men’s secondary sex characteristics. Construction work is physically demanding; a man’s typical physique is better suited, collectively, for construction work.

But I want to be clear here: If a woman has the desire, ability and physique to be a construction laborer or carpenter, she should have the opportunity to do the work. She should not have to face sexual harassment or degrading comments and treatment. The hiring should be based on her relevant, individual traits, not on some aspect of women or men, collectively.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. Send comments to [email protected]

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