Is discrimination the only explanation for the wage gap?

As Equal Pay Day rolls around, crusading politicians President Barack Obama and gubernatorial hopeful U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, misleadingly trot out Bureau of Labor Statistics data stating that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns — for the same work or in the same job.

While the narrative sounds like a great way to whip supposedly victimized women into a frenzy, there’s only one problem: It’s not true.

The more accurate version of the report is that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns — period. Those are very different ways to report data.

It would be so easy if we could just throw Lilly Ledbetter at the evil corporate chieftains who have perpetrated such an outrage on the nation’s women, but it would be more constructive to see what’s actually going on.

Economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn explored the effects of education and experience in their paper, “The Gender Pay Gap.” Interestingly, even though women have been gaining in both areas, this didn’t account for much of the discrepancy.

Men’s lopsided union membership and their protected salaries accounted for about 4 percent of the gap. But the big differences came from the fact that women tend to cluster in lower-paying occupations. Accounting for that narrowed the pay gap to about 91 percent.

The other 9 percent? Now we get to what economist Claudia Goldin calls the “rational choices” that women make in and about their lives.

Much has been written about the “mommy track.” Many companies have created flexible and family friendly policies, giving women (and men) a variety of ways to structure their days and their careers. But that necessarily comes at a price as workers trade the demands of promotion for the freedom to live life on more family-friendly terms.

Women may well choose lower-income careers based on their prioritized commitments (for instance, a teacher who is able to raise her family around her profession), something that has nothing to do with discrimination. With sometimes limited options, it’s usually women who also end up being the caretakers for both younger and older family members, shouldering duty and responsibilities as the “sandwich generation.”

Another aspect to consider is that women just don’t negotiate as well as men. As one of the first waves of women coming into the workforce en masse (what on earth were we thinking with those stupid little bow ties, ugh!) I discovered that the men hired for the same job and at the same time as me made about 25 percent more. Victim? No. Poor negotiator? Yes. Lesson learned. I still talk with women who simply have never been taught to ask for what they want properly.

And then there is another trend that seems to be picking up speed: Women who have made a decision before they’ve even left college to put aside their careers to raise families. In fact, according to a New York Times article, “They will happily play a traditional female role, with motherhood their main commitment.” And Forbes did a survey where “84% of working women told ForbesWoman and TheBump that staying home to raise children is a financial luxury they aspire to.”

Take that, radical feminists.

All this isn’t to say there isn’t a gender pay gap. But there’s so much more to the issue than politicians trying to get a key constituency energized would have you believe.

If he’s genuinely concerned, perhaps Obama could lead by example in the White House, where women are paid less than men. Of course, in this case, Obama urges others to do something that he won’t in his stump speeches: “look at overall pay and instead compare employees in the same positions.”

So is income the only measure of success? We all have to make choices about how we live and balance our lives. It’s superficial and incredibly detrimental to judge a woman’s success and achievement solely by how much she earns.

And money doesn’t buy happiness. Research by the New Economics Foundation show that while wealth can increase happiness, at a certain point, income has a diminished return on happiness. And working long hours can decrease life satisfaction.

Women who opt for a less stressful and demanding job (or even work without pay in the home) so they have a more balanced life and can spend more time with their families are, indeed, making a rational choice. That doesn’t in any way lessen women’s accomplishments or undermine their advancement.

Perhaps the real gap is with those who don’t seem to grasp this fundamental concept.

Susan Dench

About Susan Dench

Susan Dench is the founder and president of the fast-growing non-profit, non-partisan Informed Women's Network. Recognizing that many women are tired of "politics as usual," Susan decided to take action and develop strategies that are innovating the way women and politics intersect, nurturing and encouraging women in fun, energetic gatherings where views can be expressed in a supportive environment and then translated into practical solutions that produce results.