The Wilson Quarterly

Almost 50 years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, studies show that women still earn between 75 and 81 cents for every dollar men earn. It’s wrong simply to attribute this discrepancy to the straw man of gender discrimination, argues Kay S. Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City think tank. Lots of other factors are at play, such as women’s preference for the kinds of careers that naturally bring in less cash.

Preferences aside, Hymowitz believes that the architecture of studies assessing the wage gap contains significant flaws. Researchers who compare the full-time earnings of women and men ignore the fact that many women work fewer hours in their full-time positions than men do. Twenty-seven percent of men with full-time jobs worked beyond the average 40-hour work week in 2007, while only 15 percent of women with full-time jobs did.

Moreover, because the available data are limited, researchers can only compare broad career categories. “The Labor Department’s occupational categories can be so large that a woman could drive a truck through them,” Hymowitz says. One often-cited statistic is that among workers in one category, “physicians and surgeons,” women take home only about 64 percent of the pay men do. But if one considers the fact that men are more likely to go into the medical specialties that require years of additional training—only 16 percent of surgeons are female—then the lag makes a lot more sense. “When you control for such factors as education and hours worked, there’s actually just a five percent pay gap,” Hymowitz reports. If the earnings of men and women who have no children are compared, there’s virtually no difference.

Women with kids are hardly all banging on the doors of the office, begging to be let inside: In a 2007 Pew Research survey, 60 percent of women with children called a part-time job ideal, with the remaining 40 percent divided between those who dreamed of returning to work full-time and those who wanted to throw in the towel altogether. It’s not just American women who are reluctant to return to the grind. “Even the determined Swedes haven’t been able to get women to stick around the office,” Hymowitz observes. In Iceland, a country revered for its public child care and family-friendly parental leave policies, women also work fewer hours and earn less than men.

The playing field is far from level, Hymowitz concedes, and gender discrimination hasn’t disappeared. But it’s important to be realistic about how much change is actually possible. “Less time at work, whether in the form of part-time jobs or fewer full-time hours, is what many women want and what those who can afford it tend to choose.”

THE SOURCE: “Why the Gender Gap Won’t Go Away. Ever.” by Kay S. Hymowitz, in City Journal, Summer 2011.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Kheel Center

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