PIcture of a woman with an empty purst

Yes, Virginia, there is a wage gap

Empty purseLast week, BNet, a CBS-run business website, ran an article by Penelope Trunk entitled “A Salary Gap Between Men and Women? Oh Please.” The article suggests that Trunk doesn’t really understand, or doesn’t want to think very hard, about how inequality and discrimination function in the workplace.

Trunk takes on the widely acknowledged reality that there is a salary or wage gap between men and women – the idea that when you control for qualifications, age, education, experience, and hours worked, women, on average, are paid less than men for doing exactly the same jobs. While the size of the gap is up for debate, that it exists is simply not up for discussion.  The wage gap exists. Case closed.

Trunk asserts that the recently announced White House push to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act is “ridiculous” because “it’s already illegal to pay people based on gender criteria.” This is true. It is already illegal to pay people based on gender criteria. It has been illegal to pay people based on gender criteria since the passage of the Equal Pay act in 1963. And yet, the wage gap exists today, in 2010. The Equal Pay Act did not, and has not, fixed the problem. So to push for better enforcement of the pre-existing law, or passage of a new, more comprehensive law, is not “ridiculous.” It is long overdue. By about, oh, forty-seven years.

Moving on, Trunk argues that the wage gap no longer affects young women, who she says out-earn their male counterparts in large cities. This may be true, but what about young women who don’t work in large cities? And what about older women, since women now work into their late fifties and early sixties, sometimes even later? Eh, who cares about older women?

Baby boomers: please do not distract us with your bitching about your lives. We don’t care. We are dealing with our own lives now, and we do not want to dedicate ourselves to solving your wage problems. Social security, urban sprawl, and the swelling debt are enough, thank you very much.”

Yeah, screw you, Mom and Aunt Nancy! You might have spent your entire working lives fighting to open doors for me and my cousins, but you don’t deserve to earn the same as your male counterparts! Because you’re old! Or something! For heavens’ sake, even if young women out-earn young men in large cities, there’s evidence that a wage gap develops and widens as they get older, sometimes just a year out of college. So even those lucky young, urban women will be at a disadvantage a few years down the road. And yet, Trunk claims that “women today do not face wage discrimination. We have solved the problem.” Yeah, right.

Trunk does concede that there’s one demographic group that really is affected by the wage gap: highly educated women, specifically those with MBAs from elite universities. But, she says (and apologies for the long blockquote, but you really need to read it to get the full sense of how willful this ignorance is):

The reason top-tier female MBAs make less then [sic] the men is because of the choice they make, not because of any gender bias. Women chose to stay at home with their children. They tend to work fewer hours per week, and they move in an out of the workforce more frequently then men do.

Even among those not so lucky to have a Harvard MBA, the salary gap is by choice: The Christian Science Monitor reported that 86% of women who left the workforce or downshifted did so because the workplace does not accommodate parenting.  Men, of course, have the same problem – they are parents also – but they do not make that choice. That the workforce is not good for parenting just is not a gender issue.

Got that? The fact that workplaces do not accommodate the needs of members of the gender that is more likely to take primary responsibility for parenting is not a gender issue. And the fact that women are more likely to leave the workplace to raise children is in no way related to the fact that the workplace does not accommodate parenting. That’s a “choice” that women make. They could stay on the job and take paid maternity leave, but they choose not to! Oh, what’s that? The vast majority of American companies don’t have paid maternity leave, because our government doesn’t make it compulsory? Well, women still “choose” to take time off to take care of kids! Never mind that in some states, childcare costs more than college, making it financially prohibitive for women, even if they work, to pay someone else to take care of their kids.

Someone needs to sit Trunk down and explain to her how structural inequality works. The “choice” to leave the workforce because your company is inflexible and unsympathetic to parents, doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, and because you earn less than your husband (as, statistically speaking, you are likely to do) and childcare is damn expensive is not a freely made choice. It is the best possible decision to make under a set of highly constrained circumstances. To do anything else would make little fiscal sense. Personal, individual “choices” need to be examined in the context in which they are made. And when that context is a system that is set up to constrain the behavior of a certain group of people and guarantee their continued inequality, we call that structural inequality.

Another example of structural inequality: Trunk advises women who are concerned about the wage gap to,

Stop looking paranoid. The world is not out to get you. Men are not against you. In fact, all the women I know who have top-tier careers are most thankful to the men, rather than the women, who helped them get there. Instead of focusing on the bad apples, find the men who respect women, and prove yourself to them.

Do you know why the women who have top-tier careers are most thankful to the men who get them there? Because you get further with a male sponsor or mentor than with a woman sponsor or mentor. Because individual men are more likely than women to be able to recommend you for a promotion than individual women. Because individual men are more likely to have that kind of power than individual women. They’re more likely to know about job openings, because they’re more likely to be included in information sharing networks or insider-y conversations that take place in non-work settings, like a golf course or a bar, from which your woman sponsor might be excluded. See that? It’s structural. Similarly, if older women don’t make the most supportive mentors, or sometimes even seem to shoot younger women down, it’s because those older women have worked their asses off to get where they are – to a level of business where there are very few women allowed, and competition between women is often cutthroat. This is how structural inequality works.

As if that weren’t enough, here’s another golden piece of advice that ignores the reality of women’s experiences on the job:

Don’t pretend to be a guy at work. Don’t dress like a guy by wearing boring suits. Show some cleavage – yup, you read that right – because guys like working with women they are attracted to. And show some leg because it’s fun – legs are the easiest thing to flaunt and the last thing to go. Women who dress like women move up the ladder faster because men think those women are smarter.

Sure, show some cleavage. As long as you’re willing to run the risk of being taken less seriously. Dress in a way that makes you appear attractive, but be aware that it might get you fired. When it comes to dressing for work, women walk an impossible tightrope: appear unattractive, and people won’t pay attention to you. Too attractive and people might not take you seriously – after all, women can’t be both sexy and smart. Clothing choices, especially in male-dominated corporate environments, carry a great deal of weight. Dressing like a man, a symbol of the desire to act or lead “like a man,” can mean that a woman will be respected, but not liked. Dressing, acting or leading “like a woman” can mean the inverse. It’s often a no-win situation, a case of structural inequality that can’t simply be boiled down to “show some skin.”

In summary, the gender wage gap exists. It exists for complex, structural reasons that can’t be resolved without collective action, legislative pressure and cultural change. And if you’re going to write about something as complicated as the wage gap in America, something that has such an enormous impacts on individuals, on families, and on our culture and economy, do your bloody homework.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/rhian/ rhian

    This is just totally bizarre.

    The Economist article she claims says “at least 15 times” that there is no salary gap actually doesn’t say that at all. It says that there are more women than men in the American workforce. And it includes: “Yet even the most positive changes can be incomplete or unsatisfactory… They are also paid significantly less than men on average.”

    The Times article does say that women are paid more than men–between the ages of 21-30, in New York City, and a few other large cities. Of course, this is a narrow demographic, and many of these women will later have children. And it also points out, “Nationwide, that group of women made much less: 89 percent of the average full-time pay for men.”

    I can only assume she can’t be bothered to read articles before citing them.

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    I have found Baby Boomers to have the greatest entitlement attitudes of anyone. That section of the column seems to be to be nothing more than projection. I see a blatant disregard of the concerns of younger women, nor any desire to see new ways as anything more than a threat. In short, they are complacent and they don’t want to stay abreast of new ways of thinking at all.

  • http://feministing.com/members/wednesday/ Wednesday

    Show some leg? I’m pretty sure that if I did that, it would have the opposite effect of making my male colleagues attracted to me, given our culture’s gendered beauty norms and the fact that I’m “seriously overweight”* and don’t shave.

    *Term used by my work’s annual health screening, based on BMI calculated from my _self-reported_ weight and height. It seems I could become healthier simply by bothering to zero my bathroom scale or weighing myself at a different time during the day.

  • http://feministing.com/members/maddowgirl/ Chelsey Worth

    *Stands up and cheers* You get them, girl! This is one of the most awesome take downs of dishonest, lazy, sexist drivel ever.

  • steven

    I found both the article and the analysis interesting, but I do have some contentions with the analysis that I think are worth mentioning.

    Chloe slams Trunk for saying the gender gap is not a “gender issue” after the lengthy block quote. Are there gender issues at play regarding parenting and so forth? Yes. But a read of the whole article shows that Trunk referenced a Washington Times article that looked at factors beyond gender, such as hours worked, and determined that there was not a “gender bias”

    Now, there is a huge difference in a societal gender issue such as parental expectations and a gender bias (like do not hire women because they are lazy [insert slur here] are not as productive as men).

    Trunk should be cautioned on precise choice of words, not belittled for willful ignorance. Along the same lines, Chloe used quotation marks when she stated “It’s often a no-win situation, a case of structural inequality that can’t simply be boiled down to “show some skin.””

    Trunk did not use the “show some skin” phrase at all in her article. Should Chloe be lambasted and belittled for putting words in Trunk’s mouth? No. She made a common mistake when it comes to using quotation marks and summarizing another work. Should she be corrected? Sure.

    Trunk also points out legitimate problems analyzing differential pay based on sex (not gender, the term both Chloe and Trunk used).:

    Plus, that 77 cents statistic is a median wage. It lumps 25 year-olds with 65-year-olds. And here’s the problem with that: Of course older women make less money than older men – their wage history is mired in genuine discrimination.

    From an analysis standpoint she is dead on. When it comes time creating variables, such as age, and placing different but meaningful values on that variable, it makes sense to have divisions. Lumping a 25 year old with a 65 year old strips away the historical context of different generations and also removes valuable trend data. It might be useful to get some historical data on the wage gap by generation. How did 25 year old do in the 1950 compared to 25 yeasr olds today in the same job (remembering that alot of times a 25 year old female would not even have the same job).

    And when it comes to women having female mentors as opposed to male mentors, Chloe goes into the structural reasons why male mentors may be more valuable. Fair enough. But she also ignores the very real reality that some women view other women as competition in a way they do not view menand this is note purely or mainly a structural issue as Chloe contents.

    Phylis Chesler’s Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman goes into detail about female versus female social violence in the workplace, as do works by other (less controversial) feminist writers. Without writing a synopsis for various books, the notion of feminist “sisterhood” is a noble lie and men and women have different in engaging and resolving conflict (and some of this may be informed by biological generalism [not essentialism], the idea that the sexes are generally, but not necessarily, different).

    In summery, does Trunk make some mis-steps in her article? I think so. But I also think that the criticism put words into her mouth and set up some straw men arguments that were easy to tip over.

    • http://feministing.com/members/hollynichols/ Holly

      I really appreciated your comment. I think it’s hard for a woman to see an article about the wage gap not existing because it most certainly does.

      I wanted to address your statement about women competing against women. That started because the media made a standard of beauty and a standard of women that made women start noticing themselves. The media says, women who wear make up and diet get the guy, those other women… well you would never want to be one of them would you? So I truly believe that women feeling as though they were helped out by men more than women is true, but the reasons for it are because of the patriarchal society we live in; it was put there as a money making tool and is not an inherently female characteristic or trait. If society tells you your only way of being a real woman who is beautiful is by having a man… then yeah there will be competition against others who could get the man. You should read “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf if you haven’t all ready. It goes into female competitive behavior a lot. And when feminism began, there was most certainly sisterhood, and I think there is still some of that today, it’s just become a vicious world with the standards put on people.

      Again, I do appreciate what you had to say about this story.

  • http://feministing.com/members/thematicdevice/ TD

    The vast majority of American companies don’t have paid maternity leave, because our government doesn’t make it compulsory?

    Making it so the company pays for maternity leave is a bad idea. It creates a massive disincentive to hire women if the company is not solely on the hook to find a temporary replacement for a skilled worker, but to also have to pay both the worker and the workers replacement.

    You can say that companies shouldn’t care, but all you are doing then is punishing the companies which actually obey the law.

    Maternity / Paternity pay need to be paid out of a common fund similar to employment insurance in Canada.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/ajmeyer/ AJ

    Recently here at Stetson University, we celebrated an event called Diversity Day. Basically, all classes are canceled so students and professors can attend various guest speakers during the day on a wide range of subjects. I went to an event concerning the wage gap. It was refreshing to see so many students, female and male, who knew about the wage gap and believed in its existence. We also discussed why it exists and the different ways we can change and eliminate it. The best bit of advise given was for women to proactive and fight for their right to a higher salary. It was great to see so many young adults enthused about fixing this problem.