Mention the gender wage gap in a public forum, and you will inevitably get a comment from someone who tells you it’s completely bogus. Here’s a gem I received on one of my PolicyMic articles, in which I claimed that addressing the wage gap would benefit men (since men are often the partners of underpaid women): “Much of the ‘paycheck issue’ is Male Bovine excrement.” The commenter then pointed out that the oft-quoted 77 cents on the dollar figure doesn’t compare women and men who work the same job. It compares female and male salaries as a whole, regardless of what jobs women and men are holding. This is true—and when we dig deeper into why that is, things get interesting.
Consider Christina Hoff Sommers’ recent article in The Daily Beast, “No, Women Don’t Make Less Money Than Men.” Ms. Sommers boils the wage gap down to life choices: she shows us that, in both college majors and careers, men choose the more lucrative options while women choose the less lucrative ones. Why? Ms. Sommers explains it: “Women, far more than men, appear to be drawn to jobs in the caring professions; and men are more likely to turn up in people-free zones. In the pursuit of happiness, men and women appear to take different paths.”
In response to the National Organization for Women’s statement, supported by the American Association of University Women, that sexist stereotypes steer women toward these professions, Ms. Hoff again holds aloft the banner of choice: “Have these groups noticed that American women are now among the most educated, autonomous, opportunity-rich women in history? Why not respect their choices?”
In other words, Ms. Hoff doesn’t believe sexism plays a role in the life choices of women. Because we are free to make our own choices, we are not constrained by the subtle and not-so-subtle cues in society that women are better at nurturing than anything else. (She would, perhaps, shake her head in stunned disbelief at the passionate praise that met the first female scientist in the Lego pantheon of characters.) Nor are we constrained by the considerations that Sheryl Sandberg points out each young woman makes as she measures future career against future family: summers off as a teacher with school-aged children measured against long hours as an engineer with very little workforce support for childcare just isn’t a relevant consideration. Because choice is choice, and we have it.
This, indeed, is the brilliance of the conservative argument—sexism, if it exists at all, has no power over women, and to say it does is sexist: “To say that these women remain helplessly in thrall to sexist stereotypes, and manipulated into life choices by forces beyond their control, is divorced from reality—and demeaning to boot. If a woman wants to be a teacher rather than a miner, or a veterinarian rather than a petroleum engineer, more power to her.”
Brilliant, in its way, yes. But flawed.
The problem with this ideology is that it enforces the status quo, binding our present to our past while denying the connection altogether.
In her wonderful history of Second Wave feminism, When Everything Changed, Gail Collins explains the career choices of women before the 1970s: “American girls had always done better than boys in most subjects in high school, but those who went to college had been funneled into relatively low-paying careers such as nursing and teaching—professions that you could pursue for a few years before marriage, and return to when your children were grown.”
Forty years later, the “nurturing careers” that “women are drawn to” just happen to make less money.
In contrast to this rationale, the people who put together the data on the wage gap are very aware of the factors that affect women in the workforce. As the National Women’s Law Center puts it, “The 77 cent figure captures the effects of many elements that produce the wage gap—including discrimination, occupational segretation, and caregiving responsibilities—and demonstrates just how strongly these many factors impact the economic security of women workers.”
In shutting down conversation about why certain jobs are paid less, and why women are drawn to them, with the rhetoric of choice (a rhetoric, as I have discussed before, that is equally applied to why women objectify themselves), Ms. Sommers can simply wash her hands of the very idea that change might be necessary. Indeed, long overdue.
In the ideology of an economy free from the influence of sexism, we never need to ask why it is that teachers aren’t paid very well. We never need to examine what influence stories and toys have on little girls—why it might matter that there weren’t any girl scientists among the Legos. We don’t need to examine our country’s maternity leave policy, or even consider paternity leave. And we certainly don’t need to ask questions about the blatant objectification of women within the computer engineering profession.
In other words, we can simply choose not to look at the underbelly of our workforce. And keep on working.