When Wage Gaps Are Fair

When I and my wife first got married, she worked shorter hours than I did, and used her additional time outside the workplace for activities like grocery shopping and preparing dinner. So there was nothing unfair about the fact that her employer paid her less than I was paid. I was getting the benefit of  these activities, not her employer — a benefit reflected in the fact that I paid most of the rent (while my wife did most of the family consumer spending, using financial contributions from me — I reimbursed her for three-quarters of each grocery bill).

My situation was not unusual. On average, women work fewer hours in the workplace than men, and are paid less, although women’s purchases apparently account for most of the nation’s consumer spending, and women probably consume as much as men. As Ramesh Ponnuru notes at Bloomberg News, although “women earn an average of 77 cents on a man’s dollar,” “part of the gap reflects the fact that women, on average, work fewer hours than men. Among people who work 40 hours a week, according to the Labor Department, women make 87 percent of what men do.” Economist Diana “Furchtgott-Roth cites a 2005 study . . . which found that . . . ‘There is no gender gap in wages among men and women with similar family roles.’ In addition to being more likely to seek part-time work, women are also more likely to have gaps in their employment history and to enter lower-paying fields. . . a 2009 report for the Labor Department, found that these factors account for most of the pay gap.”

As Ponnuru points out, it makes no sense to blame employers for this, since “[t]here is very little that individual employers can do about any of these issues. They can’t make men do more housework, or pick majors for women. Nor can they reasonably be asked to adjust their salary schedules to make up for those choices.”

Instead, it’s up to households to compensate women for the greater work they do on average around the house, since it is households, not employers, who reap the benefits of this household labor. Households appear to do just that, since women spend much of the nation’s income, and account for most consumer purchases. (I am the principal wage earner in my family, but I never spend money on luxuries for me, and I watch every penny I spend when circumstances necessitate spending money on myself, like buying food while traveling, or paying for work-related travel costs that are not reimbursed.)

Ponnuru’s logic seems unassailable, but it was too much for some commenters. One angry woman wrote in response to Ponnuru, “You’re ignoring the biological differences that assign women the responsibility of bearing, giving birth to, and feeding the children. It’s not just a matter of preference, but of biological necessity. In an ostensibly ‘family values’ country, when men and women “choose” to have families, why should women be penalized for. . . sometimes shorter work weeks that having families necessitates?” There just is no reasoning with some people. This commenter expects other people, like employers, to pay for the costs of women’s voluntary choices, rather than the families that benefit from them. In any event, I certainly disagree with her gender-stereotyped assumption that it is only women who have the “responsibility of . . . feeding the children.” As the principal breadwinner, I effectively pay the costs of feeding my daughter, and I usually make breakfast for her.

Misconceptions about the wage gap between men and women are driving support for the perverse Paycheck Fairness Act, which would require equal pay for unequal work. In 2009, an unnecessary law called the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was enacted based on false claims about the facts and ruling contained in a Supreme Court decision dealing with pay discrimination.