Male-Female Facts and Fallacies

“History shows that the career paths of women over the course of the twentieth century bore little resemblance to a scenario in which variations in employer discrimination explain variations in women’s career progress.”

The author of that statement, Thomas Sowell, Hoover Institution scholar, believes that there is indeed discrimination against women in American society, even egregious cases of it. He adds, however, that “even an absence of discrimination would not mean an absence of male-female economic differences.” The author deals with those at some length in “Male-Female Facts and Fallacies,” a chapter in his new book, Economic Facts and Fallacies. Sometimes the differences fail to conform to the scenarios of militant feminists, who see male discrimination in general, and employer discrimination in particular, as the sole explanation. Things are not so simple, as Sowell shows in considerable detail.

For example, “The proportion of women in professions and other high-level positions was greater during the first decades of the twentieth century than in the middle, all before anti-discrimination laws or the rise of the feminist movement.” Further, “There is no pay gap for full-time workers 21-35 living alone,” and, “As far back as 1969, academic women who never married earned more than academic men who never married.”

In another study, from 2005, “Among college-educated never married individuals with no children who worked full time and were from 40 to 64 years old, men averaged $40,000 a year and women $47,000.” What, then, explains cases when the numbers tilt the other way?

Gross income differences in favor of men, Sowell says, “continue to reflect differences in work patterns between the sexes.” The economic consequences “follow from practice rather than principles.” The practice involves “the asymmetrical division of domestic responsibilities” and produces differences in incomes in many ways. Women’s choices, including a propensity to work shorter hours, often lower their overall pay in the professions. Sowell cites that as a factor in a study of University of Michigan law-school graduates. After 15 years, the women earned only 60 percent as much as men, but employer discrimination was not the culprit.

The New England Journal of Medicine, Sowell notes, found that young male physicians in 1990 earned 41 percent more than young female physicians. The males in this study worked more than 500 hours a year more than the females. No earnings difference was evident after adjusting for differences in specialty, practice, setting, and other characteristics.

When women choose to leave the workforce for family reasons, they can find themselves playing catch-up, particularly in fields such as computer engineering and tax accounting. This makes for lower earning capacity, and promotions are not as likely for those with less job experience. Sowell calls this the “asymmetrical effects of career obsolescence on women and men.” He also tackles another issue that seems to have escaped the oppression industry.

In many unionized jobs, seniority, not work performance, is a major factor in pay, promotion, and retention during layoffs. Here the asymmetrical division of domestic responsibilities would tend to affect women more. Powerful unions, including those who represent teachers, favor the seniority system, but feminists have failed to target seniority as a cause of pay disparities. Seniority is also a factor in civil-service positions, but a different issue affects all jobs.

As Lilly Tomlin said in the one-person play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, where she played an exhausted but successful businesswoman and a single mother, “if I had known what it was like to have it all, I would have settled for less.”

Thomas Sowell also invokes the tension between having it all versus doing it all. Younger women may take this into account, he observes, and older professional women may decide it is not worth the toll. Sowell notes that in jobs with long hours and high stress, women are only half as likely as men to say they wanted to still be working at the same pace five years down the road. Here I align more with the men, and in five years I fully expect to shoulder an even heavier load.

In the end, says the author, “most male-female economic differences are accounted for by factors other than employer discrimination.” Fallacies based on gross income data remain but “the fallacy is not in the undisputed fact of male-female income differences but in the explanation of that fact.” Further, “Much also depends on whether the social goal should be equal opportunity or equal incomes.”

I will side with equal opportunity, which abounds in America, without any need for quotas and special treatment. I also recommend Economic Facts and Fallacies for anyone planning a career in any profession. It will be interesting to see if any celebrity feminists choose to tackle the facts marshaled by Thomas Sowell.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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