"women still earn on average only about 75 cents for every dollar a man earns. That's a huge discrepancy."
It is a huge discrepancy. It's also an exquisite example of what journalist Charles Seife has dubbed "proofiness." Proofiness is the use of misleading statistics to confirm what you already believe. Indeed, the 75-cent meme depends on a panoply of apple-to-orange comparisons that support a variety of feminist policy initiatives, from the Paycheck Fairness Act to universal child care, while telling us next to nothing about the well-being of women.
Many studies have examined the subject, and a consensus has emerged that when you control for what researchers call "observable" differences—not just hours worked and occupation, but also marital and parental status, experience, college major, and industry—there is still a small unexplained wage gap between men and women. In 2009, the CONSAD Research Corporation, under the auspices of the Labor Department, located the gap a little lower, at 4.8 to 7.1 percent.
The point is that we don't know the reason—or, more likely, reasons—for the 7 percent gap. What we do know is that making discrimination the default explanation for a wage gap, as proofers want us to do, leads us down some weird rabbit holes. Asian men and women earn more than white men and women do, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Does that mean that whites are discriminated against in favor of Asians? Female cafeteria attendants earn more than male ones do. Are men discriminated against in that field? Women who work in construction earn almost exactly what men in the field do, while women in education earn considerably less. The logic of default discrimination would lead us to conclude that construction workers are more open to having female colleagues than educators are. With all due respect to the construction workers, that seems unlikely.
So why do women work fewer hours, choose less demanding jobs, and then earn less than men do? The answer is obvious: kids. A number of researchers have found that if you consider only childless women, the wage gap disappears.
When working mothers can, they tend to spend less time at work. That explains all those female pharmacists looking for reduced hours. It explains why female lawyers are twice as likely as men to go into public-interest law, in which hours are less brutal than in the partner track at Sullivan & Cromwell. Female medical students tell researchers that they're choosing not to become surgeons because of "lifestyle issues," which seems to be a euphemism for wanting more time with the kids. Thirty-three percent of female pediatricians are part-timers—and that's not because they want more time to play golf.
If women work fewer hours than men do, it appears to be because they want it that way.
In fact, women choose fewer hours—despite the resulting gap in earnings—all over the world. That includes countries with generous family leave and child-care policies.
So it makes no sense to think of either the mommy track or the resulting wage differential as an injustice to women. Less time at work, whether in the form of part-time jobs or fewer full-time hours, is what many women want and what those who can afford it tend to choose. Feminists can object till the Singularity arrives that women are "socialized" to think that they have to be the primary parent. But after decades of feminism and Nordic engineering, the continuing female tropism toward shorter work hours suggests that that view is either false or irrelevant. Even the determined Swedes haven't been able to get women to stick around the office.