It’s a staple of feminist rhetoric: Women make less money than men because of discrimination.
“We’d all like to think, in 2012, that pay discrimination is a thing of the past,” the progressive activist Joy Lawson wrote in the Huffington Post recently. “But the pay gap still exists, and it’s big: women earn an average of 77 cents on a man’s dollar.”
April 17 has been designated Equal Pay Day: Supposedly that’s how long women have to work to catch up to men’s pay from the previous year.
U.S. President Barack Obama has cited a similar statistic to promote legislation to make it easier to sue employers for discrimination. Democrats accuse Republicans who resist such laws of waging a “war on women.” Expect to hear more about the issue during the fall campaign.
Here’s the truth you won’t hear: The pay gap is exaggerated, discrimination doesn’t drive it and it’s not clear that government can eliminate it – or should even try.
Conservative economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth runs through the problems with the statistic in her book on the economic progress of women, “Women’s Figures.” She points out that part of the gap reflects the fact that women, on average, work fewer hours than men. Among people who work 40 hours a week, according to the Labor Department, women make 87 percent of what men do.
Furchtgott-Roth cites a 2005 study by economists June O’Neill and Dave O’Neill, which found that for the most part “the gender gap is attributable to choices made by women concerning the amount of time and energy to devote to a career.”
To say that women’s choices result in their being paid less, on average, than men is not to deny that unfair social conditions may constrain those choices. Perhaps men should do more of the work of running households and raising children, and boys should be brought up with that expectation.
Obsession with the pay-gap statistic has led the National Organization for Women to support legislation to restructure the economy. In its press release about Equal Pay Day, the group called on Congress to force employers to change the pay scales for different jobs. The assumption is that employers’ sexism is what now determines which jobs pay more.
There’s no reason to think that women will ever, on average, have the same preferences as men about combining employment and parenthood, or that they will want to become librarians and truck drivers at the same rate as men.
So we shouldn’t expect that 77 percent figure ever to rise to 100 – or even want it to. •
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.