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Opinion: There's More to the Pay Gap Story

Sep 1, 2010 – 3:45 PM
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Laura Vanderkam

Laura Vanderkam Contributor

(Sept. 1) -- The "pay gap" between men and women is much in the news these days. Ninety years after women gained the right to vote, a typical story reports, we still earn 77 cents on the dollar.

But what if there's more to the story? Some new data show that the question of why people earn more or less is quite nuanced. In some cases there is pretty blatant gender discrimination. In others, it involves questions of how we spend our 168 hours, with women doing pretty well when they want to.

So let's look at the whole situation. I read a short story in the Wall Street Journal highlighting research from Reach Advisors which found that, based on Census data, young single women earn more than their male peers in most U.S. cities. In general, they earned $1.08 to a comparable man's dollar (that is, 8 percent more). In Atlanta, their wages were 121 percent the level of their male counterparts (they earned $1.21 to the dollar).

This is quite a large gap, and it reflects a few things -- most importantly, that more women than men are going to and graduating from college. When women are young and single, they also appear to be going "full in" to the labor force. That is, they take high-paying, full-time jobs, without any worries that this will hurt their chances in the marriage market (and it won't, as my friend Christine Whelan has documented in her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women," using Census data).

But, of course, as pundits will point out, women don't stay single and childless. Some 80 percent of us will have children. There is some evidence that mothers are treated differently at work, even in "big" jobs. Indeed, in "big" jobs, women in general may be discriminated against. Several years ago, I reviewed a book called "Selling Women Short" by Louise Marie Roth. She tracked people who earned MBAs from 1991 to 1993 and took jobs on Wall Street. Roughly six to eight years into their careers, she compared their salaries and workweeks. She found that fathers earned $590,625. Mothers earned $314,357. Childless women earned $356,944.

The fascinating part about those numbers is that childless women were actually working more hours per week than the fathers. This seems like a pretty clear-cut case of discrimination, and indeed Roth uncovered various ways that banks shunted women into groups that did not land the big bonuses.
But this direction of the time gap -- in which a big group of women were working more hours than men -- is not the broad state of affairs. According to the American Time Use Survey, in families where both spouses work full time, moms spend 5.14 hours per day on work and work-related activities. Fathers spend 5.98 hours. This means that moms are working a 36-hour week, and fathers are working close to a 42-hour week.

In other words, fathers are working about 17 percent more than comparable mothers. When you look at all women, the time-gap for full-time male and female workers is closer to 10 percent. But this is still roughly half the pay gap.

Women do, of course, work more at home. In couples with kids where mom and dad both work full time, moms spend just shy of three more hours on interactive child care per week. They spend just shy of five more hours on household tasks. There are serious arguments to be made that caregiving should be valued more than it is (I'm not so sure about housework). But is that really something that employers should be leveling?
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Unfortunately for those who want a quicker solution, I think that in general, this state of affairs will level as a result of millions of household conversations and negotiations. Many of these are already taking place. As I've written before, when I drop my 3-year-old off at school (it's a full-time program, so pretty much 100 percent of the families are two-career couples), I'm sometimes the only mom in the elevator with a group of dads. Just because you are the female half of the couple doesn't mean you have to do the laundry. More critically, you can trade off nights of working late or going to networking functions.

But closing this gap also means that moms have to want to work more -- and many simply don't. If (according to a DailyWorth poll) the majority of moms who work full-time wish to work part-time, this suggests that most full-timers aren't looking for ways to increase their hours to match comparable fathers'.

Which means that, overall, the pay gap could be with us for a while.

This article originally appeared on Laura Vanderkam's 168 Hours blog.
Filed under: Opinion
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