a bird and a bottle

Our 74 cents.
December 24, 2006, 9:10 am
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, news

According to an article in today’s NY Times, the pay gap between college-educated men and women is widening. The article offers two explanations for this disturbing trend (women are earning 1 cent less now ($.74) than we did a decade ago ($.75) for every dollar a man earns):

Like so much about gender and the workplace, there are at least two ways to view these trends. One is that women, faced with most of the burden for taking care of families, are forced to choose jobs that pay less — or, in the case of stay-at-home mothers, nothing at all.

If the government offered day-care programs similar to those in other countries or men spent more time caring for family members, women would have greater opportunity to pursue whatever job they wanted, according to this view.

The other view is that women consider money a top priority less often than men do. Many may relish the chance to care for children or parents and prefer jobs, like those in the nonprofit sector, that offer more opportunity to influence other people’s lives.

Both views, economists note, could have some truth to them.

“Is equality of income what we really want?” asked Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard who has written about the revolution in women’s work over the last generation. “Do we want everyone to have an equal chance to work 80 hours in their prime reproductive years? Yes, but we don’t expect them to take that chance equally often.”

Ok, I was with the Times on the first explanation – that one way to explain the pay gap is that women often choose or are forced to be the primary caregivers in their families, and that one way to address this pressure might be government-sponsored childcare near the places that parents work.

But the paper lost me on that second reason. And here’s why: it my be true that some women consider money less of a priority than men do, but we should question what is nature and what is nurture. Women have long been leaders at the nonprofit level because it was for a long time the only sector in which women could lead. For a long time, men did not take nonprofit jobs since the low pay tended to equal low prestige. It’s also true that many women do relish the opportunity to care for their children.

But so, one might argue, would many men, if given the chance.

Yet in part due to the pay disparity charted in the article, it’s often all or nothing for mothers in the workplace, and as a corrollary it’s often all or nothing for fathers as well. Because American jobs are so demanding (whether a lawyer working 100 hours a week or a starbucks barista with two other jobs to pay the rent), and employers are required to provide so little in terms of quality of life concessions, American families often resort to having one parent who works full time and another who stays home full time. Any other balance seems, to many, impossible. For the millions of families who do not have the luxury of living on a single salary, or the families in which – gasp! – both parents actually want to continue to work after having children (and, I would guess, for all women regardless of their work status), the whole “women choose this” line just feels old. And like an excuse for not doing more to allow women to be equal contributors to and beneficiaries of American life.


1 Comment so far
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Thanks for raising this issue. Overall I tend to agree with you. There are no shortage of troubling data here, especially about glass ceilings. (And the question of stay-at-home vs. working moms does feel old.) It seems to me, though, that one day American men might wake up and realize that (after certain basic needs are met) quality of life isn’t measured in salary, in which case having to earn 100 cents on the dollar may seem more like a burden than a benefit. 80 cents and some time to spare? that’s a choice I could see many women (and men!) gladly making.

Comment by professorplum

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