Gender Disparity: Paycheck Fairness Act is not enough

Before I start, let me say that I support any effort to address wage inequality and I believe strongly in the right to equal pay for equal work. If the Paycheck Fairness Act helps to bring more equity to the workplace, I’m all for it, but it will not eliminate wage disparities between men and women on its own.

Republicans are wont to point out that women make less than men not because of discrimination but because of lifestyle choices. (Read a fuller discussion of this in The Guardian.) Their argument centers on the fact that it is possible to pay every woman in any given job the same wage as every man in a similar job and still end up with wage disparity because more women are in lower-paying jobs. To Republicans, this means sexual discrimination is not a problem (everyone should just choose to be a petroleum engineer or investment banker, right?), but for the rest of us it means that sexism is a pernicious problem that will not easily be solved with a piece of legislation.

First, we might ask why the jobs more women choose pay less than the jobs more men choose. One proposed answer is that men choose jobs that are riskier and require a more “masculine” personality. Women, it is assumed, will choose safer and less demanding jobs. Another answer is that women gravitate toward jobs that require fewer hours (they need to get home to the kids, you know?). And another is that women choose jobs that require less training.

According to the 2013 Physician Compensation Report, male doctors earn 30 percent more than female doctors. The report explains the disparity thus: “There are fewer women in some of the higher-paying specialties. For example, in orthopedics, only 9 percent of the survey respondents were women, whereas in pediatrics, 53 percent of survey respondents were women.”

Interestingly, the lowest paid specialty in medicine is now HIV/Infectious Diseases, which also happens to be the specialty with the second highest rate of overall satisfaction (just behind dermatology). The other low-paying specialties are family medicine, diabetes/endocrinology, and internal medicine. Other high-paying specialties, after orthopedics, are cardiology, radiology, gastroenterology, and urology.

While I can’t see that the risk of treating infectious diseases is lower than the risk of practicing urology, I do see that the lower-paid specialties focus more on care and concern and require human interaction. (It still may be true that women are more risk-averse, which may be why they are safer doctors.) It seems to me that we value technical expertise over human and care and concern in most fields. At least we are more willing to pay for technical expertise and less willing to pay for the care and concern that we will all need.

Teachers work hard and take many risks but will never earn as much as petroleum engineers. Ah, but petroleum engineers fatten the bottom line for their employers, you say. Let them try to survive without teachers to get them there. Let all the hard-working risk takers make it through life without the people who cared for them and helped them become successful. And men have always said this, haven’t they? We have clichés such as “Behind every successful man is a woman.” And women have done their work, largely, for free—because they had no other choice. So the work women have done is devalued (though prized in way) and undercompensated. If fewer people were willing to do “women’s work,” the price of such work may indeed rise, but I don’t see this happening any time soon.

And men sometimes choose work that may be seen as “feminized.” When they do, men also earn less because their work is undervalued, too. If the work were not undervalued, I aver that more men would choose different careers. After successful careers in industry, some men choose to leave their jobs for more “meaningful” work after middle age. The work people describe as “meaningful” or “rewarding” is almost always related to either caring relationships or creative enterprises; these are the activities that make life seem worthwhile.

Because these activities bring so much personal satisfaction, people are willing to do them for less pay. If petroleum engineering did not pay so well, I’m sure some people would still choose it as a profession, but many people choose it now only because it pays well and not because it enriches their lives in any other way. Many men are starting to reject the idea that they must choose careers based on how well they pay. Some men in the men’s movement reject being treated as “success objects.” Nonetheless, I think women are more likely than men to feel free to choose careers based on satisfaction rather than remuneration, and men are more likely than women to feel they must choose a career that pays well. There are many, many exceptions, of course, but not enough to close the pay gap between men and women.

So, what should we do to address the problem of wage disparity? First, stop devaluing “feminine” work. Recognize the true value of education and care. Second,  stop treating men as “success objects.” Remove the stigma from rejecting a high-powered career for a more rewarding and meaningful life. Finally, make it possible to find a balance between a career that pays well and a meaningful life. Some women may pass up high-paying professions because they do not want to neglect their family relationships or similar concerns. At the same time, some men neglect relationships and personally rewarding work because they feel obligated to earn as much as possible. Men and women would both behave differently if it were possible to enter any career without having to sacrifice family relationships, volunteer opportunities, and creative outlets. Another world truly is possible.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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