Is Removal of the Gender Pay Gap a Utilitarian Dream?

Last month the University of Cambridge published its latest Equal Pay Review, something it is now doing biennially (rather than annually) since things don’t change that drastically year on year. As in previous years, if you look at the average or median salaries for men and women there are substantial differences, reflecting the tendency towards grade segregation. However what, to my mind, matters far more are the differences within the grades; here the gap is much smaller – although certainly not negligible. Nevertheless, even our local newspaper couldn’t make a particularly horrendous story out of the statistics.

We can and must do better, but actions in place are bringing the gender gap down year on year; we have clear action plans and this year introduced a couple of new recommendations which we hope will continue to improve the situation. These include a programme of support for returners (piloted this year in the Physical Sciences) and a specific charge upon Boards of Electors and Appointments Committees to ensure that any pool of candidates is appropriately diverse, through new guidelines/recommendations. Time will tell if this makes a substantial difference, but nothing is going to change things overnight, albeit the direction of travel is right.

However, amongst my Christmas reading I came across a couple of papers in the social sciences which highlight issues indicating it may be unable to achieve parity by institutional actions alone. The first of these papers involved Cambridge and Canadian researchers looking in more detail at gender segregation in 30 industrialised nations around the world (the full paper can be found here and a brief analysis on the University of Cambridge website here).

What this paper shows is that grade segregation in itself is by no means the whole story about the gender pay gap.  For instance, Scandinavian countries, which rank very highly on measures of gender equality, actually have very substantial job segregation and any such segregation implicitly indicates that occupational choice for both men and women is constrained to some degree.  The findings demonstrate that an egalitarian society is not necessarily incompatible with job segregation. A corollary of the findings in the paper is that the greater the degree of segregation – implying that women are in less direct competition with men – the greater the degree of seniority women on average reach and so the gender pay gap may actually be reduced by the segregation.  However I am not entirely convinced that this amounts to a healthy situation for anyone.  The authors also point out that where there is substantial segregation, the women typically occupy the more ‘attractive’ roles such as non-manual ones with a concomitant reduced risk of injury and death, again demonstrating that segregation in itself is not all negative.

The second paper is even more concerning to those who want strict parity, because it suggests the substantial role societal expectations play on both men and women, in colouring how women progress. This paper also has a ‘lay summary’, this time in the Economist. Carried out in the US, the study looked at the relative earning power within couples. Where the woman in a couple was likely to earn more than the man (based on demographics) she was more likely to leave the workforce completely or work at a lower level than might have been anticipated in order, it would seem, to fulfil the cultural norm that the man earns more than the woman.  The Economist states dryly ‘That’s bad news for the Economy.’

The findings also suggested that where couples did exhibit ‘role reversal’ (in other words the woman was earning more than the man), they were likely to state that their relationship was less happy than a ‘normal’ couple or that it actually ended in divorce. It didn’t seem to matter whether the woman earned just a little more than her husband or a lot, the outcome was the same. This obviously suggests that the purely utilitarian, rational arguments (in other words those which economists traditionally apply) fail because of our psychological responses and internal beliefs. As part of a role reversal couple myself, whose marriage has so far happily survived for 36 years, I can attest that role reversal is undoubtedly societally unpleasant for the male, but also we are ‘proof’ that it doesn’t inevitably lead to rapid divorce!

At the risk of using a sociological term inappropriately, this appears to me to be another form of ‘choicism’, where women will take a course of action – in this case restricting their salary and career aspirations – in order to comply with a cultural norm, whether they consciously know they are doing this or not. This may indeed contribute to the decisions of some of the women who become the ‘stay-at-home-mom’, justifying their decisions to themselves and the world that this is what they really want to do, a topic I wrote about at more length before.

I fear that these established norms are going to be very hard to eradicate, which in turn implies – if this study is applicable around the world – that the gender pay gap is not going to disappear in a hurry. It may be that institutions such as my own university can only go so far in successfully eradicating pay differentials by the introduction of new policies, if some women are actually self-selecting not to aim as high as their intrinsic skills might support and suggest. No doubt some readers will feel in essence let the women do what they want, why make an issue out of it, but if, deep down, this is not the choice that women would make if society were different  we should make an issue out of it. It is perhaps unsurprising that the US study shows that where a woman’s mother-in-law had herself worked, women were more likely to be the higher earning member of a couple. So maybe in another generation or two, when more and more mother-in-laws have themselves worked, these cultural norms will be modified. And perhaps only then will the gender pay gap really disappear. Not a comforting thought.


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4 Responses to Is Removal of the Gender Pay Gap a Utilitarian Dream?

  1. Even measures aimed at increasing the numbers of women appointed have effects that are limited by turnover, unless you are in a position to create large numbers of extra positions. Taking a positive point if view there are actions which have an effect on short time scales, such as reviewing appointment and promotion procedures, actions which have an effect on the medium term such as ensuring women are retained through undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral phases and longer-term actions such has working with school children and changing attitudes. We should have realistic expectations about what can be achieved on different time scales. As well as changing attitudes to men taking parental leave and career breaks we also need to encourage men to take up occupations, such as clerical work, which are currently dominated by women.

  2. Margaret says:

    I completely believe that women make (perhaps unconscious) choices to fit the norm of earning less than the husband. However, I also wonder if some of these women are making this choice (consciously) because the higher earning jobs that they would have access to are not family-friendly. Perhaps some of this choicism can be alleviated by ensuring proper family support to mothers (and fathers!) in high-power, high-paying jobs. One needs to consider the cultural norm that it’s okay for fathers to ignore their offspring time-wise in order to provide money-wise. Women may be choosing “spend time with family rather than make lots of money” rather than “take lower paying job so my husband earns more than me.”

  3. tom schuller says:

    Very glad to have my attention drawn to these. The occupational segregation issue is particularly important, not only because it suggests that women stand a greater chance of progressing upwards in more highly segregated occupations/societies – which as you point out raise some interesting dilemmas – but also because the analysis makes it clear that women overall achieve higher levels in terms of social stratification – status and desirability of the job.
    It’s absolutely right to link this to the issue of choice (I’m very leery of that ‘choicism’ …) but I’m not at all sure where it leaves us. For me, it does look as if it gives support to the idea that women often choose not to pursue a typical male career, and maybe get as much or higher satisfaction from that. But that invites complacent conclusions that such trade-offs are all ok.

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