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No Gender Gap in Wages? So Carrie Lukas Argues. Part 1.

echidneofthesnakess Icon Posted by Echidne of the Snakes

April 13th, 2011

Carrie Lukas tells us on Equal Pay Day that there is no gender gap in wages, that the differences are wholly due to women’s “free” choices. I beg to differ. Hence these two long posts answering her arguments.

Lukas is not an economist, by the way, so I shall be gentle with her arguments. But before I begin, may I recommend my three-part series on the gender gap in wages? The data may be slightly out-of-date but the arguments apply.

Back to Lukas. Here’s what she tells us in the Wall Street Journal:

The unemployment rate is consistently higher among men than among women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 9.3% of men over the age of 16 are currently out of work. The figure for women is 8.3%. Unemployment fell for both sexes over the past year, but labor force participation (the percentage of working age people employed) also dropped. The participation rate fell more among men (to 70.4% today from 71.4% in March 2010) than women (to 58.3% from 58.8%). That means much of the improvement in unemployment numbers comes from discouraged workers—particularly male ones—giving up their job searches entirely.
Men have been hit harder by this recession because they tend to work in fields like construction, manufacturing and trucking, which are disproportionately affected by bad economic conditions. Women cluster in more insulated occupations, such as teaching, health care and service industries.
Yet if you can accept that the job choices of men and women lead to different unemployment rates, then you shouldn’t be surprised by other differences—like differences in average pay.

Lovely! I really like this way of arguing that “choice” is what drives the gender wage gap, completely, and therefore it must be “choice” which drives earnings differences between men and women, completely.

But note that we are given no proof that women and men in fact “choose” their jobs in the same way they might choose vanilla or chocolate ice-cream. I’m pretty certain that if I applied for a job at a local construction site my being a female goddess would have all sorts of consequences, other than making me into a construction worker. Or most likely NOT making me a construction worker. People guard their turf and the ways to do that include sexual harassment, withdrawal of crucial information and just plain nastiness.

Likewise, the society still steers people into certain occupations based on their gender, and the jobs that women dominate might not be the jobs they “choose” if women were not expected to be responsible for childcare, say.

What about those unemployment figures? Do men really have consistently higher rates of unemployment? And are the female occupations Lukas lists indeed protected against economic downswings?

The answer to the first question is no. Data from 1973 to 2010 shows that there have been years when the female rate was higher than male rate and years when the male rate was higher than the female rate, but on average the rates have been about equal by gender. Thus, Lukas is incorrect when she argues that “the unemployment rate is consistently higher among men than among women.” But note that the average earnings do meet the condition of being consistently lower for women than for men.

I promised to be gentle, dealing with a non-economist, so I’m willing to assume that Lukas uses the term “consistently” only in the sense of the most recent recession. And within that context the male unemployment rate has indeed been higher than the female rate. Even the reason for that she gets partly correct: The bellwether industries for both downturns AND upswings are the traditionally male ones.

In other words, it is construction and manufacturing which suffer first when times turn bad. BUT they are also the industries which revive first.

What about the argument that the more female-dominated industries: teaching, health care and services, are more insulated? The fact is that those industries are not saved from economic fluctuations, either. They are not affected as early in a recession as the traditionally male blue-collar industries, but they are affected, as we can see from the recent rounds of state-level layoffs. Their impact is not yet fully visible in the unemployment statistics, however.

It’s fun to hide things in writing, by the way. Lukas does that in this part of the above quote:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 9.3% of men over the age of 16 are currently out of work. The figure for women is 8.3%. Unemployment fell for both sexes over the past year, but labor force participation (the percentage of working age people employed) also dropped. The participation rate fell more among men (to 70.4% today from 71.4% in March 2010) than women (to 58.3% from 58.8%). That means much of the improvement in unemployment numbers comes from discouraged workers—particularly male ones—giving up their job searches entirely.

The figures she quotes are for March of 2011, and yes, indeed, the unemployment rates fell for both sexes over the past year: For men it fell from 10.7 in February of 2010 to 9.3 in March of 2011. For women it fell from 8.7 in February of 2010 to 8.3 in March of 2011. Note the much bigger drop in the first set of numbers. This suggests that the unemployment rates are coming together again, the way they are wont to be most of the time.

And what about that discouraged male worker comment? I think that Lukas confuses the participation rate with the rate of discouraged workers. The two are not the same, because individuals have many reasons for not being in the labor force.

If she in fact is talking about discouraged workers, another Bureau of Labor Statistics table tells us that the number of discouraged male workers fell from 624,000 in March of 2010 to 569,000 in March of 2011.

That is sufficient on the question of unemployment. Lukas tried to use it to explain why women “deserve” to earn less. I don’t think that she succeeded in that, but whatever. My next post addresses her actual earnings arguments.
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Cross-posted on my blog, Echidne of the snakes.

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