Here’s What Happens When Men Write About the Gender Pay Gap

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Men at work.
Men at work.Photo: Haywood Magee

Last week, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece by Robert J. Samuelson titled “What’s the real gender pay gap?” In it, Samuelson cited the trendy data point that the gender pay gap, which is widely considered to be about 79 cents for women to an American man’s dollar, is actually something closer to 92 cents. After “adjusting for gender employment patterns,” Samuelson writes, the 79 cents we normally think of is a “bogus comparison.” “Even the remaining gap of 8 percentage points may not stem fully from discrimination.”

The piece continues apace, citing one and only one recent study on the issue: a report by a married couple of Cornell University researchers called “The Gender Wage Gap: Extent, Trends, and Explanations.” Samuelson’s primary takeaway is that if this one report claims the gap is much smaller than women have been saying, equality is nigh.

Specifically, they identify two major differences between women’s and men’s employment patterns. First, despite advances, women remain more concentrated than men in lower-paying industries and occupations. They work disproportionately as health-care aides, receptionists, cashiers and food servers. This drags down women’s average wages. The second big difference is that women still have slightly less on-the-job experience than men. This, too, lowers their average wages.

Samuelson’s piece ends on this smug note: “But we shouldn’t exaggerate these difficulties. On the whole, this historic transformation has gone remarkably smoothly.” The historic transformation, if you couldn’t guess, is the decision to finally treat American women as something close to humans by letting them into the workforce.

In The Atlantic just a few days later, another male writer attempted to tackle a century of discrimination against women in the workforce through a different avenue (one that, to his credit, manages not to suggest that women merely “get over it”). Derek Thompson writes of the wage gap: “It is also the result of a subtler cultural force — a values gap. Among equally smart men and women, men, on average, gravitate toward making as much money as possible and working long hours to do it. Women, on average, do not.” The headline of the piece, “Too Many Elite American Men Are Obsessed With Wealth and Work,” employs so much verbal gymnastics that it reads like a page from The Onion.

The article’s fulcrum is a study published in the Journal of Human Capital last year, which interviewed 495 NYU undergrads about how they’d think differently about their college majors if they knew real-world salary data for their intended careers. “Young female students, on average, say they prefer jobs with more stability and flexibility — ‘lower risk of job loss, lower hours, and part-time option availability’ — while male students, on average, say they prefer more earnings growth,” Thompson writes.

Thompson argues that this phenomenon, which he terms “young men’s preference for risk and reward,” is a primary contributing factor to the gender pay gap. Like Samuelson, he works hard at presenting his piece as an outsider perspective that tells us what we actually need to know and maybe had been missing: that women’s claims of discrimination are overblown, that pay inequality has a defense, too. This kind of information, both pieces assert, shifts the burden of responsibility for closing the pay gap from men (hiring managers, bosses, colleagues) back to women. Perhaps the real reason for the gender pay gap, they posit, is that women want to work less, don’t care enough about money, and are calling attention to a “bogus” statistic to get paid salaries they didn’t actually earn.

So let’s set aside the 79 percent statistic for a second and look to Samuelson’s 92 percent: What Samuelson doesn’t mention is that this near-parity applies only to younger women between the ages 20 and 24, who work full time. And what about Thompson’s insistence that there is a “workaholic mania among educated wealth-seeking American men, who seem uniquely devoted to working any number of hours to get rich?” There are many number of deep-rooted reasons for that phenomenon. (Have you ever watched a movie — like, any movie?) And those limited studies that say women seek more part-time work than men? When faced with the motherhood penalty of having a 4 percent docked pay for every child they have, is it any wonder that part-time work appeals more to women? As of 2014, two-thirds of American men only took a week off for the birth of their children.

What else could be contributing to the fact that women are still not treated equally or fairly in the workplace? Could it be the lack of comprehensive nationally standardized paid maternity leave in America? Could it be that when women are ready to re-enter the workforce after raising children their time away is treated as a dilution of their worth and skill? Could it be the rarely talked-about “experience gap,” wherein men promote men because women don’t have the same amount of experience as men, all because male bosses won’t promote women from the start? Could it be the “confidence gap,” which makes it easier for men to demand higher pay because they’re statistically more self-assured? Could it be that there is a “social cost” and a threat to women’s job security when they even attempt to negotiate for higher pay? Could it be that women in the workplace are often asked to keep mum about sexual harassment out of fear of losing their jobs? Could it be that once a traditionally male role begins to be populated by women, the job itself becomes a lower-paid position? Could it be that the price of child care is so astronomical as to be prohibitive for women to return to work after childbirth?

Could it be plain, old discrimination against women that makes male bosses (nationally, 90 percent of professionals who hold managerial roles are men) feel inclined to pay them less?

But hey, don’t let me tell you why women are constantly prattling on about the gender pay gap. Let a man explain it. Thompson writes in The Atlantic, “When Harvard Business School surveyed 25,000 of its male and female graduates, it found that high-achieving women failed to meet their career goals. At graduation, most women said they expected ‘egalitarian’ marriages, where both spouses’ careers were taken equally seriously.” But the study found that more than three-quarters of the men who were surveyed found later that their careers had taken precedence in their relationships. Worse still: The men admitted that they’d expected this to happen. Harvard Business Review reported that, “More than half the men in Generation X and the Baby Boom said that when they left HBS, they expected that their careers would take priority over their spouses’ or partners.’” I wonder if that’s because, in America, men do a total of 2.5 hours of housework compared to a woman’s daily four hours? Could that be contributing to a woman’s desire to perform part-time work? A literal lack of time?

At the end of Thompson’s piece he asks several questions about other possible reasons for the gender pay gap: “Are women averse to high-risk, high-reward professions because they expect, from an early age, that these career paths are barricaded by discrimination? Maybe,” he writes. “Are subtle and hard-to-measure cultural expectations nudging young women toward jobs that would offer flexibility (to care for kids they don’t yet have) while pushing men toward high-paying jobs (to provide for that family they don’t yet have)? Maybe.” I’d argue more than just “maybe,” my man.

If men want us to stop defaulting to the 79-cent statistic to make our point about pay inequality, no problem. We’ve got plenty of other statistics (and years of personal experience) to back it up.