The Gender Pay Gap Is More Complicated Than You Think


embedIllustrated by Ruby Yeh.

Not to kill your Sunday, but it's time to talk about the wage gap again. In a new column for Forbes, contributor Tim Worstall makes the argument that the gender pay gap is a "dead, dead, and gone issue." Which might be news to you if you're making less than your male counterpart.

The stats, as Worstall points out, are more muddied than the "77 cents for a man's dollar" often referenced because, in fact, there are choices that women make that affect career advancement and wages in general. The core issue here is that wage gaps become a serious problem when women are earning less money for equal work in an equal position.

Worstall's own take reflects some interesting anomalies. According to U.K. pay figures, lesbians earn more than men on average, as do women who have never married and have no children. Noting that the pay gap widens when workers hit 30, Worstall argues that motherhood is the major barrier to earning equal pay, not merely gender. Given factors such as maternity leave and reducing one's hours to part-time, we can see how having a child could affect a woman's salary. (It's worth noting here that choice doesn't always come into play; there are a lot of workplaces that automatically see mothers as liabilities or unreliable workers before they've even made a decision about how to balance a career with raising children).

We start to disagree, though, when Worstall states that these money issues balance out because women spend more. As in, hubby brings home the bacon, and wifey gets to hit the shops to buy goods for the family. Because, like, that's just as good as earning a fair wage. He's correct that women do most of the purchasing, whether for non-necessities or for household needs. But, that doesn't touch the crux of the wage gap issue.

He writes: "Women get to do the spending of a majority of the money that’s earned by households which means that consumption inequality runs entirely the other way, in women’s favor, than does, purportedly, income inequality. And, at that point we can declare the gender pay gap a dead and gone issue. It just doesn’t matter. For it really is that consumption inequality that is the only form that can possibly be important and given that that runs in women's favor it can’t be a problem, can it? Unless we ought to be complaining about the way that women do decide upon a majority of purchases, about the way that men are so shamefully oppressed by their consumption inequality?"

Right, but we feel that Worstall is missing the point. Paying a man and a woman the same wage for the same work instills gender equality and enforces equal pay for equal work, even if the net results end up with women spending more. It shouldn't matter if a woman ends up handling extra income as the primary purchaser for a household. That's like paying a person less because he won a couple grand on the lottery. It's about the work.

Whether you agree with Worstall or not, his column makes for an interesting read. We see flaws in his argument, but the whole idea of bringing purchasing power into the debate adds yet another layer onto the complex issue of wage equality. The question is, does that layer even make sense in the first place? We're not sure. (Forbes)