On Pay Equality for Women

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Marilyn vos Savant (Parade Magazine, 2000) on Equal Pay

Marilyn vos Savant writes the "Ask Marilyn" column in Parade Magazine. She is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame for "highest IQ." This is Marilyn's explanation of why the widely-quoted statement "women, on average, earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men" is a misunderstanding and why she believes the wage gap between the sexes actually may be tiny. The results of her poll about men and women in the workplace follow it.
Q - Some time ago, you polled your readers for their opinions about men and women in the workplace, and I put in my 2 cents. I’m still waiting to read the results. Can it be that they are too controversial to publish? - Herb Millspaugh, San Francisco, Calif.

A - No, but they’re surprising, all right! Before the survey, I replied to a question about the claim that women are paid less than men for equal work by writing: "But if their work is equal, why aren’t employers slashing their payroll costs by hiring women instead of men? In a free market, businesses are highly competitive, and if they’re paying men more than they pay women, there must be a reason."

One reason, I wrote, might be that women often have less experience because of years spent at home raising children. During that time, men and women with unbroken careers have built customer bases, cultivated professional relationships and stayed in touch with developments in their industries. Those employees are going to be worth more, and that’s only fair.

The National Committee on Pay Equity wrote to complain about that assessment. It blamed sex discrimination instead: "Women, on average, earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. Some of the gap is attributable to experience, education and time taken out of the workforce to raise children. But there is plenty of evidence that shows wage discrimination exists. We routinely hear from women who discover that they are paid less than equally qualified men."

This is a common misunderstanding, based on an inflammatory misinterpretation of Census Bureau survey statistics: The "77 cents on the dollar" figure is simply the weekly median (meaning middle: an equal number of women above and below) earnings figure ($473) of all working women divided by the weekly median earnings figure ($618) of all working men. These figures include everyone from dishwashers to physicists and have nothing whatsoever to do with equal pay for equal work. Yet the misleading phrase "77 cents on the dollar" has been the impetus for lawsuits and legislation, not to mention the source of unnecessary fury on the part of both sexes.

In short, much of the "wage gap" is due to experience, education and delayed or broken careers, plus the fact that women are concentrated in lower-paying occupations. It is possible that very little equal-pay-for-equal-work gap exists at all. Note: Equal qualifications don’t produce equal performance in the workplace. Just because employees complain that they’re not being paid as much as others doesn’t mean their complaints are justified: Both male and female employees routinely fail to recognize their own personal shortcomings, and both complain about not being paid as much as fellow workers who they believe are equal or inferior to themselves.

To be convinced of any real equal-pay-for-equal-work gap, first we must see unbiased studies that show men and women working in the same jobs and producing the same results but with unequal pay. And even that isn’t enough. Then we must consider relevant additional factors, and there are many. For example, employees with management potential may be paid more. If women are perceived to have less ability to handle positions of more responsibility, they could lose some ground here.

To see if women are considered equally capable and valuable in other ways (that is, excluding management potential) by the public itself -- not by employers -- readers were asked to fill out a questionnaire. The results (shown below) were amazing. There wasn’t a single job for which the vast majority (say, 90%) of the readers answered that "it made no difference." And the only job for which even a simple majority (over 50%) of the readers actually preferred a woman was a babysitter, and that turned out to be the vast majority (about 90%). The runner-up (and still under 50%) was soothing angry customers -- handling complaints! So that’s how we see it. Are we right or are we wrong? Are men and women equal or unequal?

If any unfair gap exists, litigation can help with situational inequities, but lawsuits make the stereotype worse, because they imply that women, as a group, need special help and are incapable of competing with men on their own. (For example, forced hiring and promoting has cast a cloud of doubt over all women.) On the other hand, if employers are not seriously biased -- and the pay differences are for good reasons -- I believe that forcing equality in pay is unfair to men.

In my judgment, women are capable of far more than they currently demonstrate, but to realize their full professional potential -- whatever that may be -- they would need to give up the home values they cherish, and I doubt that will happen. As I once wrote, "Money, power and fame are not most mothers’ goals." Nor should they be.
Survey Results: Here's how 7,758 readers felt about men and women in the workplace:

Q - Whom would you rather hire as a full-time babysitter while you work?

Of the men, 4% chose a man, 91% chose a woman, and 5% said it made no difference.
Of the women, 2% chose a man, 90% chose a woman, and 8% said it made no difference.

Q - Whose voice do you trust more when you call computer tech support?

Of the men, 57% chose a man, 4% chose a woman, and 39% said it made no difference.
Of the women, 44% chose a man, 7% chose a woman, and 49% said it made no difference.

Q - Whose voice do you prefer to hear when you call a complaint department?

Of the men, 18% chose a man, 43% chose a woman, and 39% said it made no difference.
Of the women, 14% chose a man, 27% chose a woman, and 59% said it made no difference.

Q - Whom would you prefer to pilot your airplane when you travel?

Of the men, 69% chose a man, 2% chose a woman, and 29% said it made no difference.
Of the women, 51% chose a man, 3% chose a woman, and 46% said it made no difference.

Q - When buying a home, with which owner would you prefer to negotiate on the price?

Of the men, 40% chose a man, 23% chose a woman, and 37% said it made no difference.
Of the women, 28% chose a man, 22% chose a woman, and 50% said it made no difference.

Q - Whom would you prefer to perform your heart surgery?

Of the men, 59% chose a man, 2% chose a woman, and 39% said it made no difference.
Of the women, 38% chose a man, 6% chose a woman, and 56% said it made no difference.

Q - If you could have an agent negotiate for your pay, whom would you prefer?

Of the men, 64% chose a man, 9% chose a woman, and 27% said it made no difference.
Of the women, 51% chose a man, 14% chose a woman, and 35% said it made no difference.

Q - If necessary, which could the workforce more readily do without?

Of the men, 3% chose the men, 77% chose the women, and 20% said it made no difference.
Of the women, 9% chose the men, 37% chose the women, and 54% said it made no difference.

Q - Should we teach our daughters that they have a choice between having a career and staying at home?

Of the men, 83% said "yes" and 17% said "no."
Of the women, 77% said "yes" and 23% said "no."

Q - Should we teach our sons that they have a choice between having a career and staying at home?

Of the men, 28% said "yes" and 72% said "no."
Of the women, 40% said "yes" and 60% said "no."

Q - Say that you’re an employer hiring a new college graduate for a career position. Over the first few years, you will spend $250,000 on this person as he or she gains experience. Which -- a man or a woman -- do you think is more likely to quit for personal reasons? (Say, to become a full-time parent, follow a spouse to a new location or stop work after marriage.)

Of the men, 11% chose a man, 83% chose a woman, and 6% said it made no difference.
Of the women, 7% chose a man, 82% chose a woman, and 11% said it made no difference.

Back to Issues Index

Thoughts on Equal Pay

Apparently, men and women are still not equal partners. In fact, they’re so unequal that they’re more or less stuck in the same trends of 90 years ago, despite our best efforts to get men to be better women and women to be better men. Alas, still foiled. — Kathleen Parker

A survey based on US Census Bureau interviews with 21,000 people in 2004 indicated men spend about 1 hour more on the job per day than women -- 8 hours versus 7.1 hours. Some of this is due to women's higher likelihood of working part-time. Though even when that is taken into consideration, the difference is still 7 percent-or 34 minutes. These differences do add up. Over the course of a year, working men are working several 40-hour weeks more than women. Are men getting the short end of the stick by having to work more hours? This difference in time at work is reflected in the average pay including promotion opportunities for women versus men.

I’m a victim of sexism myself all the time, but I just think it goes with the territory. — Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in America, Speaker of the US House of Representatives

Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition. — Timothy Leary

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