• How is a gender pay gap the result of a woman's life choice? (Digital Vision/Getty Images)Source: Digital Vision/Getty Images
Comment: Men who say the gender pay gap is a result of women’s life ‘choices’ overlook the fact that their work-related decisions are frequently driven by factors other than freedom of choice.
Sushi Das

21 Oct 2016 - 2:16 PM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2016 - 5:17 PM

There are those who argue the gender pay gap is more about the difference in life choices that men and women make, rather than discrimination by employers.

British commentator Tim Worstall, for example, argued exactly this in Forbes magazine last month.

“The gap is about those choices, not about anything else,” he wrote. “Thus unless those choices change there never is going to be a closing of the gap.”

Some women will find this an unpalatable sentiment. They might point to the numerous studies, such as that by Ian Watson at Macquarie University in 2010, which have found that despite the characteristics of male and female managers being similar, their earnings are very different. Watson suggests discrimination is largely to blame.

And so this argument has dragged on year after year, with no end in sight.

However, Deloitte in the UK did recently release a study suggesting the gender pay gap would close in 2069. Their optimism is admirable.

Clarifying a few major points

First let’s be clear: the gender pay gap is not the same as unequal pay.

The gender pay gap is the difference between men and women’s average weekly full-time equivalent earnings. Unequal pay is when men and women doing the same work earn different amounts – and that’s illegal.

If you have more men at the top of an organisation and more women at the bottom you will have a gender pay gap, but it does not necessarily indicate unequal pay. In Australia the gender pay gap is currently 16.2 per cent.

There are lots of reasons for the gender pay gap and this is where those life choices come in.

The arguments go like this:

  1. Women choose to study humanities more often than the sciences at tertiary level which subsequently leads to jobs that pay lower wages.
  2. Women choose to do less dangerous jobs than men, which pay less too.
  3. Women choose to do more part-time work (three in four part-time positions are held by women) because it allows them to fit-in caring for children better.
  4. And, women choose to drop out of the workforce to start families and so don’t reach senior levels of their organisations, thereby earning less.

All this is true. But to what extent are women really ‘exercising choice'; to work in lower paying jobs or in working arrangements that pay less than men?

This is the bit of the conversation where men generally go quiet. 

To what extent are women really ‘exercising choice'; to work in lower paying jobs or in working arrangements that pay less than men?

Girls often opt to study humanities because there are insufficient female role models in the sciences.

Also, girls’ socialisation programs them to lean towards the humanities.

Further, STEM subjects, which lead to higher paying jobs, have been, until recently, geared towards boys. Consider this: in the UK 70 per cent of women with STEM qualifications don’t work in STEM related industries. That is a staggering statistic worth pondering.

If girls are choosing the humanities it’s because they are often encouraged in that direction or led to believe that’s what they will be better at. That’s not real choice, that’s mass socialisation.

Then there’s the matter of women doing less dangerous work. Dangerous work often requires more physical strength. Miners are more often than not men. That’s not a choice, that’s just pragmatic.

In terms of looking after children, women are the ones who take up part-time work, rather than men. Women are the ones who usually earn less, so if an income has to be forgone, it makes sense to forgo the lesser of the two incomes. That’s not a free choice, that’s a sensible decision driven by economics.

And of course women drop out of work to have children. You can hardly give birth and return to work the next day as if nothing has changed. Dropping out of work to have kids is not a choice. Women drop out of work because men can’t give birth and the only other option is not having any children at all.

There are many reasons for the gender pay gap and they include discrimination. But men who ascribe the gender pay gap to women’s life choices overlook the fact that their decisions are frequently driven or molded by factors other than free choice. And to argue that life choices are the sole or even the main reason for the gender pay gap, is to deny that discrimination in the workplace exists at all. And we know that’s rubbish.

Women drop out of work because men can’t give birth and the only other option is not having any children at all.

Form the start of this month, British organisations with more than 250 employees must gather information about the gross pay and bonuses of all their male and female employees so it can be published by April 2018.

In Australia, organisations with more than 100 employees are already required to report against a set of standardised gender equality indicators. Evidently, the governments of both these countries are aiming to reduce the gender pay gap.

If women were making choices that they’re happy with and there was no discrimination, then nobody would have a problem with the gender pay gap, would they? But they do, and that’s the issue.

It’s usually, but not always, men who openly argue or secretly believe women earn less money because they make life choices that result in less pay. They ‘choose’ to earn less pay. I suppose a cock-eyed view of the world is wont to provide such a distorted picture.

Many men simply don’t see the power differences, the pay differentials, the fake choices or the subtle, as well as overt, socialisation that frequently shape the lives of women.

As Clementine Ford says in her new fierce, uncompromising and brutally honest book, Fight like a Girl: “Men are often oblivious to the fact these power dynamics exist, which is why it can be so frustrating to try to explain it. How do you tell someone what air looks like?”


Sushi Das is a journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter: sushidas1.

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