The Pay Gap: Is it Women's Fault?

Last Updated Jan 10, 2011 11:43 AM EST

Yes, Virginia, there is (still) a pay gap. And, gals, this is your fault! Just in time to open the new year on a note of intellectual dishonesty, here's a hit parade of recently reiterated alleged facts about why women make less than men in most circumstances:
  • Women choose to make less and not get promoted - women just aren't ambitious enough. And aren't they smart to sidestep the rat race!
  • When faced with a choice between career and family, women always choose family
  • If you take advantage of programs like flexwork and telecommuting, it's only fair that you trade away greater pay
  • Women work fewer hours, so of course should get paid less (notice that this charge is always divorced from productivity measures)
  • Women lose momentum when they ramp in and out of the workforce to attend to family responsibilities, which obviously should be penalized
  • Yup, it's all about that cushy lifestyle that lulls so many women into economic dependency, according to a sociologist at the London School of Economics, no less, which is whipping up a storm of controversy
Let's neutralize the posturing with a dose of facts:
  • Collectively, American women make 19.8% less than American men.
  • Women start almost even but almost immediately fall behind
  • The gap accelerates when children arrive and women take advantage of alternative work arrangements or drop out of the workforce altogether
  • When women do continue working full-time, they often find their opportunities for pay-enhancing advancement curtailed. It's not that they have kids, it's what their bosses assume about their ambitions because they have kids
I've found that folks often confuse being contrary with being constructive, so let's set this straight: the pay gap is perpetuated by a convergence of cultural forces. Nobody claims to discriminate. Nobody thinks they are unfair. Yet, across most industries, women fall behind in pay even when factors such as experience, education and performance are factored in. It's nobody's problem, and it's everybody's problem.

Case in point: if women lawyers can't get equal pay for themselves, what hope is there for the rest of us? A recent report found that in 2009, male law firm partners averaged $25,000 more in income than female partners.

Did women lawyers choose this? No, according to the University of California Hastings College of the Law's Project for Attorney Retention, which disputes the most common explanations for the pay gap between male and female partners. That logic dictates that women spend so many hours on family, they can't spend the time necessary to:

''...develop business, or that they are more likely to go into less lucrative legal specialties. No studies of gender differentials in partner compensation are available, but a rigorous study discounted these explanations for why men are more likely to become partners--at a rate that has not decreased since women entered the law in significant numbers in the late 1970s.''
And furthermore:

"Male graduates are more likely than female graduates to be partners even when men and women have comparable career plans, law school GPAs, marital status, parental status, work histories, and legal specializations."
So, no, the pay and partnership gap is not explained by women lawyers' lifestyle choices. The gap is explained by what sociologists call 'opportunity paths": networking opportunities and the ability to work on career-enhancing assignments."
In other words, women get overlooked. Their bosses automatically include up-and-coming men and at the ball game or in the hand-picked group that tackles the high-profile case. Those men are the ones remembered when nominations are being thrown on the table for the next round of partners. The morning after, the partners wonder why they have so few women candidates.

Women, the pay gap isn't due to your lifestyle. it's just...life.
  • Joanne Cleaver

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