Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The New York Times On The Gender Gap in Earnings

An article worth reading, but with some reservations, which I shall graciously provide here. The first reservation has to do with this comment:

Like so much about gender and the workplace, there are at least two ways to view these trends. One is that women, faced with most of the burden for taking care of families, are forced to choose jobs that pay less — or, in the case of stay-at-home mothers, nothing at all.

If the government offered day-care programs similar to those in other countries or men spent more time caring for family members, women would have greater opportunity to pursue whatever job they wanted, according to this view.

The other view is that women consider money a top priority less often than men do. Many may relish the chance to care for children or parents and prefer jobs, like those in the nonprofit sector, that offer more opportunity to influence other people's lives.

Both views, economists note, could have some truth to them.

This description may reflect the two views fairly well, though there are more views than these two (as the article makes clear later on), and even these two should be interpreted in a more complicated manner. But the real reservation I have is this: People tend to use stuff like this to support their own preferred view as if the evidence from a particular study could be interpreted whatever way you prefer. This is not correct. If you wish to learn more about all this, click on the website given at the top of this blog and read my three long posts on the gender gap in wages.

The second reservation I have is the old one about differences in gender preferences, you know, the idea that women don't care as much for money or want jobs with better amenities. This may well be true, on average, in the sense of a small percentage difference between how men and women would rank different characteristics of a job. But the presence of these differences doesn't tell us why they exist. Yet wingnuts, especially, assume that all this is "choice" and therefore nothing to worry about.

Consider, for a moment, a woman who has grown up in a society where women do most of hands-on childcare, are expected to do most of it, and where many women take time off from the labor market to do this and where the expectation is that the husbands of these women will enable them to take that time off. How would this woman plan her own future if she wishes to have children one day? Might she not decide, quite rationally, that she needs to find a job with enough flexibility so that she can drop out of the labor market for a few months or a few years and come back without getting tremendously punished for that in terms of lost future earnings? And might she not also decide, equally rationally, that she must accept lower earnings in exchange for this greater flexibility?

What I am trying to explain in the above paragraph is the idea that our preferences and desires may not be some completely inherited biological instincts but may equally well be formed during our childhoods based on how the actual society works for women and men, respectively.

My final reservation in reading these types of articles is always to do a gender reversal inside your head. It shows you all sorts of interesting things. In the case of this article, for example, it made it clearer to me how unquestioning we are about men's "choices" in the labor markets.