A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Are women paid less than men for the same work?

August 23, 2002

Dear Cecil:

I'm always hearing it tossed around as fact that women are paid less than men for the same work. Most folks seem to treat this as common knowledge. Seems, then, that the smart thing for businesses to do would be to hire women exclusively. So, is it a bunch of hooey?

Cecil replies:

If you want to be literal about it, yes, it's a bunch of hooey. Paying women less than men for the same work violates U.S. law. The federal government being the model of efficiency that it is, we can be sure this type of discrimination has been totally stamped out. One may object: But everybody knows women get paid less than men! Of course, but the question was about pay for the same work. The thing is, women, in some people's eyes, don't do the same work as men. They stay home having babies and knitting dirndls while the men are out hunting bear and fending off the Visigoths, so naturally they get paid less. You may detect a note of sarcasm here, but dressed up in slightly more refined terms this is largely the argument used to explain wage differentials today.

Fifty years ago it was common for women to make less than men for the same job. Among the rationales: women required "extra services" (tampon dispensers in the johns?), didn't want to work overtime, needed help with heavy physical labor, etc. But the real reason, as a 1939 pay-policy manual noted, was "general sociological factors" — testosterone-speak for "That's just the way it is, honey." This sort of discrimination was outlawed by the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and similar statutes passed by the states. Some employers subsequently attempted to weasel out of them along the lines suggested above, arguing that wage differentials for similar jobs were justified by the fact that the guys occasionally had to lift heavy items and so on. Never mind the incidentals, said the Supreme Court. If the jobs are substantially equal (not identical), the law requires equal pay.

Usually, anyway. Four "affirmative defenses" permit unequal pay for the same work: seniority, merit, performance-based incentive systems, or other nondiscriminatory business reasons. (I'm taking this from the new book Compensation by George T. Milkovich and Jerry M. Newman, with the assistance of Carolyn Milkovich — one wonders what she got paid.) The last item offers a fair amount of wiggle room. For example, in Kouba v. Allstate the plaintiff said the minimum salary she earned as a sales rep was less than males typically got. Allstate admitted this but said minimum salaries were individually set so they'd be: (a) high enough to attract applicants, but (b) low enough that reps would want to make sales and earn commissions. Since women usually had been paid less in their previous jobs, it took a smaller minimum salary to attract them to Allstate. OK by us, said the court.

Whatever the effectiveness of equal pay legislation, it didn't attack what many felt was the core problem: occupations historically dominated by women (e.g., nursing, teaching) pay less well than those dominated by men. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which among other things prohibited discrimination based on sex, seemed to offer a way to address this issue. The Supreme Court ruled that under Title VII, pay differences for dissimilar jobs were possibly evidence of discrimination. However, proving one's case in the absence of clear intent turned out to be difficult. Employers have successfully argued that if they pay the market rate for different jobs they're not discriminating, even if the market decrees higher wages for jobs usually held by men. Women's advocates have proposed the concept of "comparable worth," which attempts to equate dissimilar jobs based on the required level of skill, effort, responsibility, and so on, but this notion has not caught on with U.S. courts or legislators.

Despite progress, women on average still get paid much less than men. In 1979 women working full-time earned about 60 percent as much as men; by 1998 that figure had climbed to 76 percent. Does that reflect an injustice? Many say no, arguing that women earn less because they take time off to care for children or elderly parents (and thus have less seniority) or accept lower pay in return for more flexible working arrangements. Women also tend to go into lower-paying lines of work, shunning higher-paying technical fields. It's easy to caricature this view (dirndls versus Visigoths, etc), but there may be some truth in it. Some research suggests that when women behave as men do — not having babies, mainly — the income gap largely disappears. If so (I won't claim the matter has been definitively settled), the question facing women is a stark one: What do you want, kids or cash?

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