Addressing the Gender Pay Gap: Culture, Not Legislation

A recent Washington Times article quotes me on Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris’s plan to address the gender pay gap. I could have given better quotes, frankly, but it’s difficult to treat a complicated issue with nuance in a couple of short sentences. Conservatives and progressives both make some good points, but ultimately fall short of addressing the issue constructively:

  1. Conservatives often downplay gender discrimination or deny that it is a problem. This is wrong.
  2. Progressives are right that discrimination is a problem, but with the pay gap, they are prioritizing the wrong facet of the problem.
  3. There is a culture gap, far more than a pay gap. Most politicians put the pay gap at 77 or 79 cents on the dollar. One ideologically motivated study puts it at 49 cents. These figures do not account for the fact that women are more likely than men to work part time or not at all for extended periods to provide child care or other family needs. Men who do the same thing are subject to a similar wage lag. In another comparison, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show a wage gap of six cents for women who have never married—which says more about cultural gender norms than about different pay for equal work. Men and women also often cluster in different occupations, which have different pay. Occupations such as kindergarten teachers and construction have heavy gender disparities, as well as different pay—often in men’s favor. Again, the causes for this are often cultural, not due to different pay for equal work. The pay gap is almost certainly not a myth, but it is almost certainly a smaller problem than many people believe.
  4. Focusing so intently on the pay gap has an opportunity cost: More important gender discrimination issues are being crowded out from popular attention. In the workplace, these issues are as serious as rape and sexual harassment. They also include cultural pressures against women making their own life choices. Different people have different preferences on working vs. staying home. Many people on both sides of the culture wars still don’t respect that. Gender discrimination also includes everyday rudeness, such as men being more likely to interrupt women in conversation, taking their ideas less seriously, or judging them on appearance and demeanor rather than merit. The list is long, and the combined effects are large.
  5. One reason for the undue attention to the pay gap is that wages are easy to measure, while “soft” discrimination is often difficult or impossible to measure. It’s an example of what economist Jerry Z. Muller calls The Tyranny of Metrics. People tend to focus on what they can measure, and ignore what they can’t.
  6. Not only is attention being focused on the wrong issue, but many progressives are only offering one tool, poorly chosen: legislation.
  7. Pay gap legislation is prone to unintended consequences, such as businesses hiring fewer women. This is not what anyone intends. But it would be the easiest way for a company to avoid compliance headaches, potential lawsuits, or as in Sen. Harris’s proposal, a tax increase. This easily predictable effect works against everyone’s shared goal.
  8. Addressing gender discrimination requires cultural change from the bottom up, not top-down legislation. Politicians’ limited vocabulary is hurting progress on a real problem.
  9. Convincing millions of  individuals over time to be more thoughtful to others is a slow, uneven process. It will also likely never end; civilization is not humankind’s natural state.
  10. The cultural change argument is aesthetically unsatisfying. It can’t be planned, controlled, or quantified, even when possible improvements are clear as day, as with gender discrimination. It is a long-term process, not a short-term result. Advocating for cultural progress just looks flat compared to more immediate offerings such as taxes, fines, or quotas.
  11. Emotionally, it is much more fulfilling to hear a fast, simple, and concrete solution at a candidate’s press conference. It gives people something tangible with a face and a name they can rally around. This is in tune with how the human brain works. It gives us an in-group to affirm and an out-group to vilify. A story with a hero and a villain makes for a more interesting story than personal reflection.
  12. In addition to the endorphin rush it provides, signaling support of a bill is far less work than a lifelong effort to treat people well.
  13. The measurement problem, the cultural change argument’s lack of charisma compared to magic bullet legislation, the abstract nature of culture, the difficulty for ongoing individual effort, our own brain chemistry, and the long-term nature of change all contribute to why people’s everyday cultural values aren’t discussed as much as they could be.
  14. Astute readers might notice that economic historian Deirdre McCloskey says similar things about cultural change and the origins of modern mass prosperity, which extends beyond one’s bank account to include the arts, life expectancy, political inclusion, technology, travel, family life, and more. Caring about gender discrimination and fighting against it is another important aspect of the larger classical liberal project.
  15. Gender discrimination is a complex problem with a complex solution. But then, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
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