Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fair Pay Isn't Always Equal Pay. So Says Christina Hoff Sommers.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a famous anti-feminist. She has written an op-ed for the New York Times on why the Paycheck Fairness Act would be a BIIIIG mistake. It's because women deserve to earn less. Also:

The Paycheck Fairness bill would set women against men, empower trial lawyers and activists, perpetuate falsehoods about the status of women in the workplace and create havoc in a precarious job market. It is 1970s-style gender-war feminism for a society that should be celebrating its success in substantially, if not yet completely, overcoming sex-based workplace discrimination.

But if sex-based workplace discrimination is at least partially overcome, why fear this act? I don't get it. And why would demanding fairness be the same as setting women against men? I don't get that, either.

I wanted to begin with her conclusions because they reveal her biases. Those biases are evident in the meat of her arguments, too. First:

The bill is based on the premise that the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which bans sex discrimination in the workplace, has failed; for proof, proponents point out that for every dollar men earn, women earn just 77 cents.

But that wage gap isn't necessarily the result of discrimination. On the contrary, there are lots of other reasons men might earn more than women, including differences in education, experience and job tenure.

When these factors are taken into account the gap narrows considerably — in some studies, to the point of vanishing. A recent survey found that young, childless, single urban women earn 8 percent more than their male counterparts, mostly because more of them earn college degrees.

To correct an error of fact: The 1963 Equal Pay Act did not ban sex discrimination in the workplace: It banned paying men and women different wages for the same work. This is not the only form sex discrimination could take at work. Other possibilities are discrimination in hiring, firing, on-the-job training and promotions. The latter were made illegal in Title VII of The Civil Rights legislation.

Then to correct another inaccuracy: Hoff Sommers states that "when these factors are taken into account the gap narrows considerably" but then goes on to quote a study about young workers which did NOT take into account education levels although it did control for marital and parental status. Thus, she herself quotes from a study which left out some relevant factors.

Here is the interesting part of her argument:

Moreover, a 2009 analysis of wage-gap studies commissioned by the Labor Department evaluated more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and concluded that the aggregate wage gap "may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers."

In addition to differences in education and training, the review found that women are more likely than men to leave the workforce to take care of children or older parents. They also tend to value family-friendly workplace policies more than men, and will often accept lower salaries in exchange for more benefits. In fact, there were so many differences in pay-related choices that the researchers were unable to specify a residual effect due to discrimination.

The op-ed links to that 2009 survey. Surprisingly, the conclusion that "the aggregate wage gap "may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers" doesn't come from the surveyed studies but from the survey-maker's own study.

This study begins with a classification of variables which might explain differences in men's and women's earnings levels. These are
-work experience
-career interruptions

Note that the author of the survey assumes that all these are based on workers' choices alone. That rules out any alternative explanations even before we are beginning to look at the data. Yet promotions, for example, can be used to discriminate between the genders. The promoted person ends up in a different occupational category (say, management) from the non-promoted one (say, sales personnel). Likewise, it's possible that women don't work in certain industries because of workplace harassment which creates a barrier to entry, and it's also possible that employers discriminate against women who have children by giving them less lucrative tasks or fewer promotions and so on. Work experience itself could be based on not only the workers' own choices if employers discriminate in firing.

My intention is not to argue for those alternative explanations, but to point out that we cannot really regard all those factors as unambiguous outcomes of workers' choices in the sense the survey treats them.

The actual analyses in the study are of two types: The first one is a conventional cross-sectional analysis of the gender gap in wages. It uses variables commonly included in such studies (though without work experience measures) and its conclusions are also fairly standard: The conventional analysis accounts for between 28.8% and 44.9% of the raw gender gap in wages, leaving the rest unexplained.

The alternative analysis is one I find very troubling. It attempts to capture something that a cross-sectional study cannot do very well: patterns of labor market attachment over time. The survey-maker does this by adding market data: The percentages of workers with the same gender, age, and number of children who either are not in the labor force for reasons other than retirement or disability or who are working part-time.

These are supposed to be proxies for the worker's own potential career interruptions. Perhaps Hoff Sommer's argument that women are more likely to leave work to care for children or aged parents?

But note that such variables would also capture any statistical discrimination employers might practice against women of child-bearing age, where statistical discrimination is defined as treating all women of given characteristics as if they were equally likely to leave their job or start working part-time. IF statistical discrimination is practiced, women in the relevant age and family composition classes might not be given on-the-job training or promotions and might earn less for those reasons.

The alternative analysis 'explains' between 74.4% and 130% of the raw gender gap in wages, depending on the specification. Oops!

The survey-maker hastens to point out that the 130% figure is an anomaly caused by a high percentage of young men being out of the labor force. Other specifications for the alternative analysis 'explain' between 65.1% and 76.4% of the raw gender gap in earnings. But remember that including variables about the general behavior of the cohort a worker belongs to would also capture any statistical discrimination. Or to put it more bluntly: They also measure being a woman in a fertile age category, because taking time off and working part-time are correlated with being female. If labor markets discriminate on the basis of sex this variable would pick up some of that effect.

The point of my comments concerning the 2009 study and its conclusions is to remind us all that only conservative anti-feminists such as Christina Hoff Sommers knows for certain that women earn less simply because they 'choose' to do so. The rest of us have to study the evidence and so on. A lot more boring but also ultimately a better approach.