• Why closing the “gender pay gap” is pernicious misogyny

    Attempting to close the gender pay gap in census-reported pay is the single most aggressively patriarchical, male-normative, and society-harming idea bandied about today. To be clear: I am very serious about this. This is not a joke or “troll”. I know that you don’t believe me. I have to prove it.

    Common ground. I need to start a discussion on such a serious, contentious topic by identifying common goals and ideas that I share with those I don’t agree with about the gender pay gap.

    1. In the US we really do have entrenched sexist attitudes that have harmful effects, including major economic effects. We need to address these directly and immediately.
    2. The reason to engage with this topic is to help eventually improve the success and happiness of human beings.
    3. If you think I sound crazy or “MRA”, bear in mind that on this issue I am essentially in full agreement with card-carrying feminists like Hanna Rosin and Christina Sommers. This doesn’t make anything I say correct, but I hope it shows that there is growing agreement that crosses political and tribal lines.
    4. At the end of this, I will explain why I’d like to see the raw gap shrink. This may sound contradictory to the headline. But the means are critical. My rendition is 180 degrees opposite to those I am dissenting against.

    The claim [1][2][3]: According to census data in which no factors relevant to salary have been considered, women earn 80-ish cents on the dollar for every dollar a man makes. When you control for the relevant features as President Obama’s Labor Department did in 2009, the gap diminishes to 5-7%. It is yet debated what may account for the remaining disparity.

    A “gap” caused by sexism has been known as a myth for many years, even as incompetent media and politicians repeat it ad nausea. This writing is not about exposing the gap as a myth; The myth has been debunked by The Atlantic, Forbes,  feminists like Christina Hoff Sommers (see video below) and Slate’s Hanna Rosin, who wrote, You know that “women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar” line you’ve heard a hundred times? It’s not true.

    The retort [1][2][3][4] to the correction that the gap is a myth: Even if the raw gap is caused by women’s choices, this is only because society coerces or conditions women’s behavior, or else because motherhood is unduly economically penalized. For example,  the Institute for Women’s Policy Research wrote, Women’s “choices” are not necessarily choices. Catherine Pearson argued on HuffPo,

    Sure, many women choose to stay home or cut back their hours after having children. But many others don’t opt out. They’re forced out because they cannot afford child care, or find a full-time job that affords them any kind of flexibility. . . . research has shown that even when women enter traditionally “male” fields, they make less.

    To show how this retort is incorrect, I will contextualize the metric of salary comparison and then discuss the severe costs of high pay that we should not wish upon women… or men.

    1.  Salary worship is male-normative.

    Many things make a job or profession desirable, profitable, or life-enhancing. One of these is how much cash you are given per unit time. But these also factor in:

    • Comfort: Must you work outside in the cold or heat or rain? or in a climate-controlled office?
    • Proximity and travel: Are you forced to regularly travel far from your home and family?
    • Risk: How likely is it you’ll be injured, killed, laid off, or fired?
    • Non-cash salary benefits: insurance, flex time, days off, contractual job security, discounts or coupons for goods or services.

    These can’t all be maximized in the positive. One must generally be traded-off for another. If you want to hire people to work your fishing boat that is often far from home and has one of the highest injury and fatality rates of any profession, you have to pay people more than those who do a similar job close to shore in calmer waters. If you offer great insurance benefits to your employees, you can’t also use that money as part of their salaries. You have finite money to use to compensate your workers.

    Men tend to value raw salary above all others compared to women (though everyone sees value in all of these) [1] [2] [3] [4]. Men do this even when it may be a bad idea. It’s one of the ways men compete with each other. If we compared the value of one job to another with all pluses and minuses considered, not just cash dispensed per unit time, we’d arrive at the real total value of a job. Instead, we ignore everything other than the one thing the thing men care about. We ignore the rest as if only male-typical preferences are important.

    This is doubly foolish when we realize that salary maximization probably doesn’t maximize anyone’s contentment, quality of life, or success in life. It must be said, in fact, chasing raw dollars is often as abjectly foolish as it is male-normative. We shouldn’t judge anyone’s job or career solely on this basis. When we judge women this way, we’re indulging in some deep and malicious patriarchy-padding.

    2. Chasing dollars is harmful and stupid.

    There’s nothing wrong with wanting better pay, especially when other forms of remuneration aren’t common in your vocation. But chasing it at the expense of everything else in the list from #1? That’s just a bad idea. As a person or as a society. Let’s consider risk vs. reward. In general, economic gambits that have higher payouts are riskier: Investing in a start-up instead of a blue chip stock. Playing the stock market instead of buying government bonds. Betting on the long-shot instead of the favorite sports team or horse. The most extreme form of high risk/high reward is playing the Powerball lottery.

    The lottery

    One or a very small number of people may win enormously, many millions of dollars, but millions of people lose. Almost everyone loses. In considering if playing the lottery is a good idea, we have to consider the losers and the costs they pay… not just the winners. The conclusion is undeniable: it’s a financially foolish choice to play the lottery (though it may be done for amusement). Yet, when we compare salary outcomes between men and women, we ignore the men who lose and are hidden in the gross averages.

    The high costs of competition

    Many young men want to be sports stars and make millions of dollars. They dedicate their scholastic career, and, often, their health, toward this goal. Almost none of them make it to professional sports. Even most of those who do wind up worse off after leaving them. 80% of retired NFL players go broke.

    When you say that you’d like women athletes to get the same pay system as men, this is the same as saying, “I’d like 99% of women who do this to be chewed-up and spit out so that a handful can be super-wealthy superstars.” Because that is how that system of competition and pay fundamentally works. Why would you want this for women?
    We could mandate post-professional savings, medical benefits, fairer contracts, etc.., And if we did that, what would happen to gross pay? It would mathematically be required to decline, all else the same.  In other words… it’d look more like the jobs women actually (wisely) tend to prefer.

    I’ve used sports as an example, but this interplay of competition, risk, and reward works the same in many careers. For every man that becomes a CEO, thousands become homeless (about 70-75% of homeless are men), broke, or imprisoned. Most people who start their own business, legal or medical practice fail; a few become very wealthy. Without changing the basic system, wanting equal numbers of women CEOs logically entails “many thousands more women should be homeless, broke, and in prison”. When you bet or compete high, you can lose big. How big?


    Another reason we can be sure society does not reward high risk-taking, is that nobody is happier being dead. 100% of those who died in work accidents in Iceland between 2003 and 2008 were men. Across Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, 1157 men died and 85 women died. To ask that women be equally represented in those jobs, and get paid for the risk they entail, is the same as saying 536 women alive right now ought to be dead. Are you sure that this would be progress?

    The declining pay gap

    We can start to see why the pay gap has declined over the last century, and why it probably varies by nation and state. As a civilization, we have put the brakes on how much risk we let people take in occupational settings. We outlawed child labor and instituted safety regulations. We’ve made businesses responsible for the safety of their workers and patrons. We have social security, Medicare, Medicaid and now the Affordable Care Act. All of these things mitigate or reduce risk and because they aren’t free, they reduce gross salaries. This is why the tax burden is very low in the United States, but social safety nets are also very weak; the opposite is true in Sweden. Take a look at the pay gap by state among US states (source)

    The pay gap is lowest in states that have the most regulation and social safety nets for everyone. It is highest where men can bet their life, and lose. Many men who lose have no salary to bring down the average.  I do not wish this tragic, backward state to become as common for women as it is for men.

    3. Infantilizing women and denying agency.

    I hope I have shown that women often “make less” because they’re making more sensible choices. They manage risk better and elect for better conditions, where possible. They avoid fool’s bets that injure, kill, disemploy or make many men homeless. Still, many believe women must be coaxed and cajoled into preferring the “right” jobs that pay more. They must be conditioned, educated, inspired, or prompted. Fortunately, this is as incorrect as it is subliminally misogynistic.

    Women took over several fields, such as teaching and much of psychology and anthropology, the moment that basic social barriers were removed. They didn’t need coaxing or special awareness programs. The first generation faced far more severe sexism, harassment, and assault. And yet, that never stopped them. They took over anyway. The lesson to be taken is not that women are delicate flowers who must be paternalistically prodded into wanting the right things. It’s that they know what they want, and own sufficient agency to go after it in spite of major obstacles.

    Our obligation is to remove all undue obstacles and, for fuck’s sake, respect the indomitable spirit of women by not suggesting they’re children in need of constant supervision. Also, we ought to start respecting the stereotypically feminine wisdom that gambling our lives and happiness for a slim chance at a few more dollars is a stupid idea.


    As I mentioned in the preamble, I would like to see the pay gap shrink. Not by women making more, but by men making less. More specifically, to reduce the variance in pay outcomes. To reduce within-gender wealth inequality. This means fewer homeless and imprisoned men and fewer male billionaires. It also means the average salary declines (as the average safety and security increases). We will never reach gender parity, because we can never eliminate risk from jobs and men will continue to tend to prefer riskier jobs. But we can get closer to parity and reduce more of the risk.

    Child care and parental leave

    I favor increasing maternity and paternity leave and subsidizing costs of child care in order to permit more women to have more career flexibility. We have regressive attitudes toward working mothers and professionals who choose to have children. This harms and unduly limits the professional options of working mothers or would-be working mothers. There is much improvement to be made here, however it is not a cause of the 70-80% pay gap.

    Category: skepticismsocial justice

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.