We Can’t Explain Away the Pay Gap, but Changing Corporate Culture Might Help
The people of Top Management Degrees seem to have taken issue with the oft-cited statistic that women make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Why else would they give us the ideologically motivated infographic, “Why Women Don’t Make Less Than Men”?
Look at that title. It doesn’t even pretend to be impartial — the infographic isn’t out to explore the gender gap, but to disprove it. That is a troubling start: when you’re handling data, it’s never a good idea give your agenda a seat at the supposedly empirical table.
Other problems: the infographic’s use of a stereotypical and hyper-feminized aesthetic (the hip-to-waist ratios on some of those cartoons are insane; the pastel scripts are laughably puerile); use of the phrase “real wage gap,” which smacks of bias; and the paternalistic way the infographic approaches working mothers (“It depends on how much you sacrifice for your kids,” Top Management Degrees tells women while simultaneously holding up men’s lack of paternity leave as proof that men have earned their higher pay.
But we don’t need to look much further than the very first sentence to see what the single biggest problem with the infographic is: “The claim that women make 77 cents to every dollar men makes disregards many choices women make, leading to false claims on [sic] social inequality and skewing gender debates.”
Top Management Degrees’ reasoning is that the 77 cents per dollar statistic only exists as an average. It’s a raw number, lacking nuance or context. But, if we account for things like the subjects women study in college, the occupations they choose, and the hours they work, we’d see that the wage gap shrinks drastically. See, it’s not that there’s any discrimination against women — it’s that women simply don’t make the same (lucrative) choices.
Now, to an extent, Top Management Degrees is correct: the 77 cents per dollar figure does result from the averaging of salaries and does not take into account variables like position, occupation, or hours worked. Similarly, Top Management Degrees is right to point out that women tend to enter lower-paying fields than men do, starting with the subjects they pursue in college. The infographic in question has all of the numbers to back this up.
“Based not on gender discrimination, but choice of college major,” Top Management Degrees proclaims. The irony of all of this is that, in looking to explain away a statistic by examining the more nuanced underlying causes, Top Management Degrees fails to examine the more nuanced underlying causes for its own data, defeating itself in the process.
The Choice Myth
The single biggest problem with this info graphic is the way it blames women’s choices for the wage gap. Women choose less lucrative fields; they choose to sacrifice for their children; they choose to do more unpaid work at home.
But Top Management Degrees destroys its own argument early on in the infographic. Perhaps it was included on accident, a case of something slipping past the copy editors. Perhaps Top Management Degrees has been messing with me the whole time, hiding this key to the argument’s undoing within the argument itself. Maybe the people who put the infographic together simply did a sloppy job.
Whatever the case may be, on the same page that Top Management Degrees claims the pay gap is the result of women’s choices, the organization casually mentions that “expectations and sex-based stereotypes push men towards STEM careers and women towards ‘pink-collar’ health and education jobs.”
Women aren’t running around and freely choosing lower-paying jobs. They’re being culturally guided — sometimes subtly; sometimes, not so subtly — into lower-paying jobs. Even Top Management Degrees knows this (or, rather, it seems likely that one of the infographic’s sources knew this, and somehow nobody realized that including this bit of information would undermine the whole argument).
We like to believe that we make our choices in vacuums — we are the rugged American individuals, after all, and nobody tells us what to do — but we’re not as free as we think. There’s a subtle determinism to the way we live. Culture plays a huge role in shaping our thinking, and if you spend your whole life hearing that women are supposed to enter certain fields and men are supposed to enter others, you can bet that you’ll have some difficulty in breaking that thought pattern. Trying to deprogram yourself from these cultural messages is like a more dramatic form of culture shock: you’re not just adjusting to a new way of living, but actively challenging the deeply ingrained beliefs that make up your worldview.
Workplace Culture: One Way to Fix the Pay Gap
When you get down to it, the only thing that Top Management Degrees proves with this infographic is that the wage gap is even more complicated than we thought. It’s not (always) the result of men blatantly paying women less – the roots run much deeper, and the causes are often hard to grasp or outright invisible.
Funnily enough, this happens a lot: people who try to explain away the wage gap often end up accidentally supporting the wage gap’s existence, as when the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz tried to debunk the disparity by citing a study that reinforced the gap’s reality.
The good news is that, as culture plays a role in creating the wage gap, so, too, can culture play a role in eliminating it. Of course, changing the culture of the entire nation will be a long and difficult process, but we can start smaller by focusing on workplace culture.
Researchers Matthew Bidwell, at assistant professor at The Wharton School, and Roxana Barbulescu, an assistant professor at McGill University, found that about half of the pay gap can be attributed to the way men and women sort themselves into different jobs. In particular, women tend not to accept jobs in workplace cultures that seem to favor stereotypical masculinity. For example, Bidwell and Babulescu found that male-centric cultures are common in high-paying Wall Street environments, which skews representation: roughly 25 percent of Wall Street employees are women, according to Vault. The number is even smaller when it comes to executive roles, with women making up a scant 11 percent.
If workplace cultures are driving women away from higher-paying jobs, the solution is clear: organizations need to ensure that their cultures are supportive of both male and female employees.
There are a few ways to do this:
- Barbulescu told Human Resource Executive (HRE) that companies should ensure that they are using gender-neutral language to advertise themselves and their job opportunities.
- Because women do a disproportionate amount of unpaid home labor –particularly when it comes to childcare responsibilities – companies should consider offering more flexible, work-from-home opportunities. Companies may also want to offer paid maternity leave, which is quite common outside the U.S.
- Organizations should also adjust their recruiting practices to address any gender inequality in sourcing and hiring, as Christi Corbett, a research associate at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), told HRE.
- The AAUW suggests regular salary audits, to ensure that men and women are receiving equitable salaries in comparable positions.
These four steps will not magically solve the pay gap – there’s much more that needs to be done. Still, they are powerful actions that all organizations can take, and they’re much more productive than trying to explain away a very real problem. Sometimes, you just have to face the truth, especially when it’s so pernicious.