The Pay Fairness Initiative: A Well-Intentioned Disservice to Women

September 28, 2012 | Elizabeth F.

Have you ever been asked one of those well-intentioned questions that ends up coming across as insulting?

“Have you lost weight?” – Um, no, but are you saying I need to?

Or, have you ever been on the receiving end of a comment that was meant well but flopped?

“You look tired.”  – Oh really? Thanks for telling me I look terrible.

The arguments behind pay equality campaigns, like the Paycheck Fairness Act of 2012, act in a similar way. While well intentioned, the pay fairness campaign represents a disservice to the women it seeks to empower. Even though the Paycheck Fairness Act failed to pass the Senate earlier this year – perhaps as a testament to its ineffectiveness– the arguments driving the legislation are still a hot topic for the upcoming election.

I recently attended the American Enterprise Institute’s event titled “Obama vs. Romney: What’s at Stake for America’s Working Women?”  This event, which was mediated by AEI’s senior fellow Karlyn Bowman, featured the Manhattan Institute’s Diana Furchtgott-Roth and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s Ariane Hegewisch. Both speakers laid out solid arguments about the importance of equal pay for equal work, but they disagreed on how that should be encouraged and what that actually means.

While I give credit to Hegewisch for her passion about empowering women, I was highly impressed with Furchtgott-Roth’s statistical and logical explanation of the misguided pay fairness initiative.

First of all, supported by the research she conducted in her book Women’s Figures: An Illustrated Guide to the Economics of Women in America, the disparity in wages between men and women is not a result of systematic discrimination, but rather a result of the difference in choices that men and women make in school and careers.

For example, the current ratio of women’s pay to men’s pay is $0.77 to $1.00. At first glance, this is shocking. This ratio, however, compares the salaries of all full-time women to the salaries of all full-time men; it does not compare the salaries of all female teachers to all male teachers or all Alaskan high-sea fisherwomen to all Alaskan high-sea fishermen. When this is done, as Furchtgott-Roth argues in her book, the ratio is usually about $0.95 or higher for women to $1.00 for men.

Furthermore, the pay fairness campaign calls for increased regulations on businesses that would require them to document and provide the government with research numbers and statistics on employees. While this might sound good, these regulations cost businesses and could even negatively affect women’s attractiveness as employees as businesses fear the new consequences associated with hiring and documenting women.

At this point, let me state clearly that men and women should be paid equally for performing the same jobs with the same quality of work. No one should be paid less for his or her work based on anything other than his or her performance. On the other hand, no one should be paid more for anything other than his or her performance either.

This leads me to point out what Furchtgott-Roth’s statistical studies show about the types of jobs men and women choose. In college, men show a trend of studying topics related to science, math, and physics, while women show a trend of studying topics related to communication, literature, and education. According to economist Dr. Mark Perry, more men than women choose jobs that could be considered dangerous or threatening, (e.g. oil drilling, high-sea fishing, logging, iron and steel work), while more women than men choose less risky, more flexible jobs (e.g. nonprofits, health services, or education). These arguments are no more than trends, and are certainly not across-the-board applicable, but neither is the $0.77 to $1.00 ratio.

In fact, according to a recent Time article, on average, single, childless women make more than their male peers. It is when women get married and start to have children, that they show a tendency to choose jobs with more flexible schedules, such as nonprofit work, nursing, or teaching, that allow for them to care for their children. And this is absolutely fine!

Because of the touchiness of the subject, let me take a moment to ensure my point is clear. My argument is not that pay between men and women is always perfect and discrimination never occurs. My argument is certainly not that women should be paid less than men. And, my argument is not even that women are paid less than men, because when compared same job to same job, they usually are not. My argument is that women, in general, tend to choose jobs that happen to have lower pay because of the nature of the risk involved in the work, not the nature of the worker.

So how is the pay fairness initiative a disservice to women? It ignores this choice. It discredits women’s ability to choose what work they want, what schedule they want, and what family life they want. It makes women victims of societal prejudices rather than competent individuals. To paraphrase Furchtgott-Roth at AEI’s event: Women are rational, and we are capable of making our own decisions. We are not victims.

Calling in the government to fix the pay equality “problem,” would mean the fight has already been lost, but this is not the case.  Though gender discrimination is unfortunately and certainly not erased from society, perhaps we should consider that the $0.77 to $1.00 ratio could be a representation of freedom, not discrimination. So when the Pay Fairness Act politely says, “women need equal pay,” it is really saying, “women don’t know what they need.”

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