Thursday, April 19, 2012

Is The US Economy Really Biased Against Men?

I debated myself for a while about the advisability of posting on this opinion piece in the Atlantic Monthly, by Marty Nemko, who appears to be the co-chairman of the National Organization for Men (!). Mostly because the initial opinion piece is intended to be a click magnet or linkbait and I don't wish to reward bad behavior by the Atlantic, especially if they don't offer a balancing post at all*.

But then someone must address the issues in Mr. Nemko's piece, so it might as well be me.

He begins with a parable:
You've just landed on Planet Zuto.
The Intergalactic Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (IEEOC) has sent you to determine whether Zuto's economy is fair to its two sexes: vozems and zems. Your boss suggests you'll probably find sexism against the vozems.
But your first discovery is that 60 vozems graduate from college for every 40 zems. You discover clues as to why. Despite the under-representation of zems, many scholarships are set aside for vozems, few for zems. The curriculum accentuates vozems' accomplishments, zems' failings. Student groups are funded to encourage vozems, for example, Future BusinessVozems, far fewer for zems.
You beam your first report back to the IEEOC: Zuto U's appear to be sexist against zems, not vozems.
Next, you examine the Zuto Bureau of Labor Statistics and find that the unemployment rate for vozems is 20% lower than for zems. You are shocked to discover that rather than trying to help zems land work, the government deliberately exacerbates zems' deficit: vozem-owned businesses get special preferences in landing government contracts and taxpayer-backed small-business loans are set aside for vozems.
You beam back your next report to the IEEOC: More signs of sexism against zems. Your boss responds, "But vozems earn 77 zits for every 100 zems earn!"

Good stuff, eh? But note the initial setting in its ahistority. We are not told why vozems seem to get such preferential treatment on that planet. The probable reason for that is intimately tied to the 77 zits figure. The vozems may have been barred from economic opportunities in the past but there are now attempts to change that.

That quote sets the stage for the whole article. Just substitute women for vozems and men for zems. Though be careful with that substitution, because men's unemployment rate in fact is no higher than women's unemployment rate over the long-run. It rises more in recessions and bounces back more rapidly when recessions end because there are many more male workers in the bellwether industries of construction and manufacturing.

Nemko's basic premise appears to be that things would be perfectly completely gender-equal if only there weren't any special set-asides or women-only groups in colleges and at work. But those arrangements exist for a reason, and that reason is that everything is NOT completely gender-equal. Whether they work to increase the representation of women in traditionally male-dominated industries is a different question.

But the reason why colleges and universities might have special groups for women who study physics or computer science, say, is because women are scarce in those fields, and because being one of the few women in the classroom can be difficult. It makes little sense to offer men support groups in those field as they are already a majority.

On the other hand, such groups for men who study, say, early childhood education, would be fantastic and deserve to be created.

What I conclude from the above quote is that Nemko is very much opposed to anything that smacks of affirmative action for traditionally excluded groups. He regards that as reverse discrimination.

But he has more to say about how the US economy hurts men:
The 77-cents-on-the-dollars statistic is calculated in a way that is biased against men. For example, while among all physicians, men earn more than women, men are more likely to be in specialties requiring longer training, high-stress, and irregular hours, for example, surgery and cardiology. In contrast, women are more likely to be pediatricians. Despite that bias, across all careers, surveys report that childless women under 30 make more than men. More than 90 percent of workplace deaths, military deaths, and severe workplace injuries (e.g., amputations, black lung disease) occur to men. Such dangerous work justify higher pay for men.
My answers to that:
1. Studies controlling for working hours and occupation still find a largish unexplained earnings difference between men and women. Indeed, good studies control for all those factors routinely. He is right that the 77-cents-to-a-dollar figure is not necessarily due to discrimination. But his arguments fail to account for a large chunk of the total difference, the chunk which obstinately stays there after researchers take into account education, experience, hours worked, occupation, marital status, age, number of minor children etc. What that unexplained residual might be caused by can be debated, of course, but it certainly leaves scope for discriminatory effects. See my gender gap series for more on this.

Or put in very simple terms: If we compare male pediatricians to female pediatricians, we find an average earnings difference to the detriment of the latter. If we compare male cardiologists to female cardiologists we also find an average difference to the detriment of the latter.

2. Then this:
Despite that bias, across all careers, surveys report that childless women under 30 make more than men.
Which surveys might those be?

Because Nemko doesn't give us a reference I'm going to hazard a guess that he talks about the survey which compared the earnings of young men and women in urban centers. But that study failed to hold education levels constant. As women in those areas have more education than men, the survey amounts to comparing oranges with grapefruit. To find out whether young childless women indeed earn more than young childless men we need to compare men and women with the same amount of education. Otherwise we run the risk of attributing an education bonus to gender.

In general it's tricky to make an earnings prognosis from very young workers. This is because most income differences accrue over time and not at the point of entry to work, whatever their causes might be.

3. Nemko argues that the higher occupational mortality of men justifies their higher pay. But this doesn't work. The reason is that the particularly dangerous occupations are not especially well-paid overall, certainly not when compared to the relatively safe environment of corporate boardrooms. And it's in the latter places that men earn large incomes.

This also doesn't work because the number of men in the truly dangerous occupations is not large enough to have any major influence on the overall earnings differences by gender.

The connection Nemko tries to build here is akin to arguing that because (relatively poorly paid) fishermen suffer from a high risk of death at work the guys who run the financial markets deserve to get paid a lot. That's pretty weird but not uncommon in this particular line of thought.

Two further comments on the higher occupational mortality of men: First the reference to military death rates is quite fascinating because women have traditionally been excluded from the military and are still mostly excluded from combat roles. This gender-based exclusion is now counted as an advantage to women! Or at least a reason why they also deserve to get paid less.

Second, as I have written before, prostitution just may be the most dangerous occupation of all and it is a predominantly female one. But because it is an illegal occupation it is not listed in those risk statistics.

What have we got so far? Nemko argues that men are discriminated against, in the sense of reverse discrimination. He also argues that women earn less than men for reasons that are to do with the valor, bravery and hard work of men. Or that is how I interpret the examples Nemko chose there.

So what comes next? Policies about childcare and pregnancy leaves and such are also discrimination against men!
In honest conversation, most people will agree that, on average, men are more often willing to do the things it takes to get promoted, for example, to make time to take advanced technical courses by forgoing recreation such as sports or shopping. Men are more likely to be willing to move to a God-forsaken place (Montgomery, Alabama, anyone?) for a promotion, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to work longer hours.
Most people will also agree that, on average, women are more eager to have children and to be deeply involving in their upbringing. So women's committees and caucuses, with the help of outside advocacy groups with close ties to the media such as Catalyst, NOW, and AAUW, have pressured workplaces to institute programs for employees' children, for example:
• On-site child care, which diverts money from all employees' salaries and/or raises company products' prices, which ultimately costs jobs.
• Formal or informal policies that allow parents to leave work early, for example, to attend their kid's soccer game, leaving non-parents of both sexes to pick up the slack. And those non-parents, especially men, dare not raise a peep of objection lest they be dubbed sexist, which can hurt their career.
• Women's advocacy groups also were successful in pressuring the government to create The Family and Medical Leave Act*, which allows employees to--usually with minimal verification of need--take up to 12 weeks every year(!) to care for a relative, with a guarantee that their job will be held for them until they choose to return. (Women take the majority of FMLA days.) Now those advocacy groups are pressuring employers to make FMLA days-off paid days.
• For parents (again, disproportionately women) who wish to take years off to raise their offspring, many corporations have established on-ramps to help them get their career back despite having lost their technical and Rolodex's currency, and now often being less committed to work than are their non-parent coworkers.

Notice how nasty the text got in that section? Notice the sly reference to "shopping" as the activity women might prefer to the hard task of taking advance courses! A particularly odd argument given that Nemko began with the female dominance in education. And finally, have a look at how angry he feels at those horrible parents who return to the labor force despite having lost their skills and their commitment!

It's a Catch-22 for women. No, they can't have parental leaves or on-site daycare. And no, they can't come back after taking time off to care for children in other ways. All these policies amount to a bias against men!

I don't know about you but this was the part in my reading where I thought that the Atlantic Monthly must have gone crazy to let this guy in through the door. He's not just opposed to what he calls affirmative action for women. He's opposed to anything at all that might let them ever leave the house, and he assumes that any policies which help workers with children are policies which only benefit women. Presumably men do not have children or families in his world.

I wonder what would be required for Nemko not to regard the US economy as biased against men. The forceful removal of all women from paid employment?

At this point in my reading the article the wind was out of my sails. Nemko is just too, too weird. For example he wants men who work long hours to be called not workaholics but heroic. By whom? Presumably by their wives or someone dependent on them for money. But I don't quite see why the term "heroic" should be applied to total strangers just because they work long hours. How is not doing that an economic bias against men? Besides, I'm a heroic workaholic myself.

Or his rant about how much more common "Take your Daughter to Work Day" is in Google searches than "Take Your Daughter and Son to Work Day." The latter is the new form of that day, as far as I understand. The former term came about because at the time girls didn't necessarily think that they could work for money in the future, and the day was proposed as a way to change that thinking.

That particular purpose is now outdated and the change to a wider definition good. But if we are to think about what the male version of the initial "Take your Daughter to Work Day" might have been it would have been "Take your Son into the Kitchen." Because sons were expected to work outside the home and not cook or clean at home.

What's sad about Nemko's piece is that the weirdness of the article makes it hard to take any of it seriously:
The media influences how men and women are treated, and how boys perceive themselves relative to girls. Whether in commercials, sitcoms, or movies, even in non-fictional media, men are disproportionately characterized as sleazebags or doofuses shown the way by wise women. Don't believe it? Just turn on your TV. And have you not seen "Girls Rule" tee shirts? How do you think that makes boys feel?
Mmm. I fully admit that the portrayal of men in some commercials and sitcoms is awful. But so is the portrayal of women in much of the media. Tits, tight skirts and so on. Add music videos and Internet pron to that and it's hard to see how women could come out as winners in this game.

The reference to the "Girls Rule" t-shirts is just silly. I have never seen anyone wearing one and I wouldn't like to see one worn, either. But I did recently pass a car with (roughly) this bumper sticker: "Anything that bleeds five days a month and doesn't die must be rotten." Didn't make me feel good to pass the parked car. And no, I did not key it.

I wish that this piece would have been replaced by one which would have actually looked at the reasons why men's average real earnings in the United States are declining among those men who do not have college education.

The main reason is in the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs due to outsourcing and the globalization of many heavy industries. These disappearing jobs are in male-dominated industries, whereas the new jobs that might replace them are in lower-paying service industries. Many of those have been traditionally female, though there's no barrier to entry for men who wish to enter them. Still, the changes have been tough for certain groups of men and have not received sufficient attention from the powers that be.

I wish Nemko had written about that or the deeper reasons behind the lower percentage of men in college and how to fix these problems. But he chose to go the zero-sum gender wars route where anything that hurts women is good for men and anything that is good for women must hurt men.
*I have now been informed that there will be such a post.