The Subtext to All Pay Gap Conversations: “Of Course Women Earn Less”

pay gap, gender wage gap, gender pay gap

Every time I write about the gender pay gap or gender inequality in the workplace someone pops up to claim that the pay gap isn’t real and that, well, of course women make less than men — they just don’t work as hard or as long or fight as hard. While there’s a demonstrable gap in earned wages between men and women, especially in lifetime earnings, these comment section pundits insist that it isn’t as big a deal as it’s made out to be. In fact, it’s no kind of deal at all. There isn’t really a pay gap, you see, because women take time off to raise kids, don’t pursue senior leadership positions and kind of suck at negotiating.

The Subtext to All Pay Gap Conversations: “Of Course Women Earn Less” 

The subtext to all of this is simply that women are different from men, in some way. Perhaps they are, on average, worse candidates. Or they are less ambitious, for one reason or another. Or maybe, if our comment section pundit can be un-PC for a moment, they are more emotional, less rational and so are less often considered for senior roles. The authors of some studies on the pay gap argue that it persists not because anyone is biased against women but because women have, through a series of personal choices, ensured that they earn less. The AAUW’s recent 2017 Gender Pay Gap Simple Truths Report reported that the pay gap between women and men won’t close until 2152.

But data is data and can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Do women “choose” to earn less? Or do they do the best they can with the opportunities available to them? Too, it’s difficult for personal choices to translate into a universal worldwide trend. There must be more than just personal choice going on here. In order to argue that women simply choose to earn less, you must assume that women are all alike — in how they differ from men.

According to AAUW, the pay gap between men & women won’t close until 2152. Click To Tweet

It’s interesting to consider that these discussions rarely include people with non-binary or non-conforming gender identities. There’s no easy set of common sense factoids to bring to bear when discussing poor employment outcomes or low wages for gender fluid people. They don’t fit into the traditional gender binary that informs these discussions: men are career oriented; women are family oriented. “Of course women make less than men, right?” But in trying to include non-binary people in this rubric, the arguments become even stranger — the binary can’t stretch to make a coherent argument about gender and career outcomes when the binary itself is disturbed. If men are “naturally” career oriented and women are “naturally” family oriented, what is everyone else, according to “nature”? These arguments also fall apart when they try to consider LGBTQ people. What’s the “natural” career orientation of a butch lesbian married to another butch lesbian?

Last week a Polish Member of the EU Parliament claimed that women earn less than men because they’re smaller, weaker and less intelligent. No subtext here, Janusz Korwin-Mikke’s sexism is all text. Brad Jaffy, who shared the video Twitter, encouraged his followers to sit through Korwin-Mikke’s diatribe so they could get to the good stuff — Spanish MEP Iratxe Garcia Perez’s response.  She told Korwin-Mikke that “I know that you’re very upset and very concerned about the fact that we women can represent citizens on an equal footing with you […] I think I need to defend European women against men like you.” The video went viral because it was so incredibly egregious and because Perez’s response was so great.

What’s valuable about the exchange between Korwin-Mikke and Perez is this: she firmly and thoroughly challenges his egregiously sexist statements and also addresses his “of course.” These days, many sexists don’t present their views on women this way. What we are accustomed to hearing from colleagues is a kind of so-called benign or unconscious sexism that often flies under the radar. The kind of sexism that leads one to argue that women make less because they choose to, of course. But there’s nothing natural about the pay gap and there are no “of course”s about it.

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Megan Purdy

Former recruiter, HR pro and Workology editor. Comics, cheese and political economy.


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