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Could the Gender Pay Gap Actually Be A Sign That Women Prioritize Socially Valuable Careers?

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On Monday, The Wall Street Journal published a report analyzing data from 1.7 million college graduates examining how the gender pay gap manifests itself in the first few years of college graduates’ careers. They found that even for graduates with the same major, women often earned strikingly less than their male counterparts. For example, among Georgetown accounting majors, male graduates earned 55 percent more than female graduates just three years after graduation.

The data is “evidence that pay gaps between men and women often form earlier than is widely perceived,” says the Journal, adding that “economists who have long examined pay gaps between men and women cite the so-called motherhood penalty—referring to the perception that mothers are less committed to their jobs—and say this affects hiring, promotions, and salaries. Determining why those gaps appear earlier isn’t simple.”

However, is this picture as dire as it seems? Among several explanations the Journal gives, including internalized sexism and outright discrimination, is worker preference.

Take, for example, the University of Michigan School of Law, where the median male graduate out-earns the median female graduate by $45,000. The school said that in the classes of 2015 and 2016, 237 men took jobs at law firms, while 158 women did. Fourteen men headed into public-interest jobs, whereas three times as many women did. The classes those years had slightly more men than women.” Women appear more likely to prefer notoriously low-paying public-interest law over a grueling job at a law firm. As one woman law grad, now a public defender, told the Journal, “With corporate law, I could make all the money in the world, but I’d rather get some kind of fulfillment from my job.”

While sexist discrimination is difficult to disprove, there is evidence that women earn less because they prefer personally fulfilling work over highly-paid work. Rather than viewing women’s reticence to take on higher paying jobs that provide relatively low value to society as a symptom of rampant sexism, we should celebrate women’s freedom to choose what career path they want. If women prefer work that contributes to society or gives ample work-life balance, then a “pay gap” should be little cause for alarm.

“Often this whole discussion starts from kind of a sexist premise: that we should focus on something where men seem to be outperforming women, so we focus on something that has high value among males,” Hadley Heath Manning, the Vice President for Policy at the Independent Women’s Forum, tells Reason. “Men seem to prioritize wages above almost anything in their job search or in their career preparation. And so we focus on that factor, and we compare women to men and we say ‘You don’t measure up.’”

There may be a “pay gap,” but one could easily argue there is also a “social value gap,” with women being more likely to gravitate towards non-profit and public service work.

“We should encourage workplace flexibility, we should encourage employers to offer telework and so forth, but they won’t do that if the goal is to make men and women workers into widgets who all do exactly the same job for exactly the same number of hours,” says Heath Manning.

It is fair to examine why many of the jobs women prefer are paid less than the jobs men prefer, though much of this difference is self-explanatory: Working 40 hours a week at a nonprofit will not and cannot pay as much as working 80 hours at a consulting firm. However, other phenomena, such as the decline in salaries as a field becomes female-dominated, are worth critically examining. However, treating any pay gap as evidence of discrimination ignores the desirability of tradeoffs and choice. Assuming all types of jobs are available to all types of equally qualified workers, it is good that the workers can choose between various combinations of labor hours, monetary compensation, flexibility, and personal enrichment. 

“We have to be careful the message that we’re sending to women, particularly young women, about the expectations they should have in the workplace,” says Heath Manning. “My fear, when we don’t carefully handle the wage gap discussion and put it in the right context, is that women will perceive that this is normal, that discrimination is normal, and that being treated less than is something they should just accept.”

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