April 2 is Equal Pay Day, and, at least for one day, attention will be focused on the fact that women do not earn as much as men for working the same jobs. Of course, many still believe that unequal pay has nothing to do with discrimination and bias, and everything to do with characteristics unique to women. One of the most prominent explanations for why women earn less money than men surrounds career choice. Women, the argument goes, just prefer careers that pay less.
Although most women don’t have paltry pay on their list of career objectives, it’s true that women and men do take different career paths. And careers dominated by women do tend to pay less. However, the issue isn’t really one of choice. We must ask ourselves why women end up in those careers, and why those particular careers pay less than male-dominated careers. Here are seven arguments that illustrate why career choice does not explain the gender pay gap.
1. Girls are steered away from certain subjects from childhood. Girls don’t choose not to go into certain fields, instead they are steered away from these fields by their parents, teachers and peers. From a young age, boys are just expected to be better at math and science—fields that typically result in higher pay. In one study, teachers were asked about a boy and a girl who performed equally well on math tests and whom the teacher rated as equal on behavior and engagement. When asked about their math ability, the teacher was more likely to rate the boy as more mathematically able. As a result of this type of bias, girls get discouraged and pursue fields where they are expected to perform well.
2. Jobs dominated by women pay less. This is the reverse of the career choice argument. It’s not that women choose low-paying jobs (that’s just ridiculous). It’s the other way around. Society values women’s work less, and therefore jobs dominated by women generally pay less than those dominated by men. Elementary school teaching is a great example. It’s an insanely difficult job, requires multiple skills and lots of education, and the success of our future generations depends on good teachers. Yet, because elementary teachers are mostly women, the pay is not commensurate with the importance of the job and the skill required.
3. Women have children. This is true. And since women still do the majority of childcare, they do often prefer career paths that have flexible schedules to accommodate attending school events and staying home with a sick child. We want women to be able to have fulfilling careers, and, since raising children is still relatively important to the continuation of the human race, we want children to be cared for as well. There is no reason women can’t do both. Other countries are way ahead of the U.S. in addressing this issue. In Finland, 92% of companies offer flexible schedules. Norway offers mandatory maternity and paternity leave, reducing the stigma of taking time off. Other countries offer affordable childcare options or partially subsidize these expenses. There are many solutions that our country could implement so that women don’t have to choose between kids and careers.
4. Women don’t enter certain high-paying professions dominated by men. Another reason that women have difficulty entering some high-paying fields isn’t because they can’t figure out the math equations or program a computer. Nor is it that they don’t like these challenges. It’s more likely that women steer clear of professions where there are few female role models and where they are more likely to be sexually harassed, interrupted in meetings, unlikely to find mentors and where they will face bias and discrimination.
5. Men make more money than women in female-dominated jobs. If the career choice argument were true, then women and men would at least receive equal pay in occupations dominated by women. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. From childcare workers to registered nurses, the census reports that men still earn more money than women.
6. In fact, there is no occupation where women earn more than men. According to the 2017 American Community Survey conducted by the census, there is no occupational category where women out-earn men. If the gender gap was purely a matter of occupational choice, women should be able to obtain parity with men when they have the same occupation.
7. Hispanic and black women have an even greater pay gap. Hispanic women’s median weekly earnings in 2017 were only 62.2% of white men’s median weekly earnings, and the median weekly earnings of black women were only 67.7% of white men’s. If career choice is the primary cause of the pay gap, then these women must really prefer lowest paying jobs.
Chalking the pay gap up to women’s career choice is like blaming global warming on the polar bears. In reality, it is unconscious bias that is the primary cause of the gender pay gap, not gender-based career choices. Unconscious bias causes women’s work to be undervalued relative to men’s. This bias gives many boys confidence in STEM courses, which give them confidence to major in STEM subjects in college and then to enter high-paying STEM fields. It leads us to prefer male leaders over female leaders. Unconscious bias gives men the benefit of the doubt in work situations and requires women to prove themselves over and over again. This unconscious bias is the true cause of the gender pay gap.
Kim Elsesser is the author of Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition that’s Dividing the Workplace.
Read this article on forbes.com