A Response to Maddox’s “How Every Company in America can save 23% on Wages”
I despise sloppy sociology.
Look, I get it. Social systems are really complicated. One’s eyes can glaze over after reading the tenth article on a row on Mertonian strain or average distance within social networks.
But it’s important that, if we want to dismiss the political aspirations of people, we do our homework.
Maddox is one of my favorite Internet satirists. Sometimes, as a satirist, a person needs to make an argument that might be exaggerated or polemical or aimed for the average person in order to make a point.
However, when people are grossly misinformed about an issue, an article that purports to present a view of the world can actually cause serious problems.
To wit, Maddox has recently posted an article where he takes issue with the idea of sexism as being the cause of the wage gap.
Let’s respond to a lot of these arguments, but first, let me begin with my strongest example of how sexist priorities operate in the real world: Social work.
It’s no secret that social workers are underpaid.
It’s also not a big secret that most social workers are women, and in fact more so in recent years.
So one of the best examples of a “pink collar” service profession, a nurturing profession, is one which is both overrepresented by women and underpaid and overworked.
Now, I offer this example because it robs so many of the bullshit excuses we hear.
There’s no “free market” estimation of work value here going on here because most social work is either in the NGO or public sector. It’s government who’s paying social workers; specifically, it’s government underpaying social workers. (And teachers, another “pink collar” profession, but let’s not even open a can of worms here).
Rather, we have brutal political priorities that make it so we want to make sure that there’s always money for aircraft carriers and subsidies for corporations but can scrimp on things like entitlement payments or social services.
These brutal political priorities, by the way, are economically harmful to us collectively. If we thought about the value that a good social worker has in terms of avoiding long-term externalities, one could make a great case for tripling their pay. Think about all the ways that a social worker helps reduce theft and criminality by getting people in touch with resources to survive, improves life conditions and makes communities safer by intervening in families that have destructive and abusive dynamics, and so forth. Or think about how much better off we’d be if the foster system were not a disaster that is so well-known as a disaster that the messed-up foster care kid is a cliché.
Those brutal political priorities that are the cause of low social worker pay aren’t specifically sexist. I don’t think that politicians are rubbing their hands together and saying, “Let’s hurt women by paying social workers less!”
But it’s an example of why this wage gap between men and women exists. It’s an example of a sexist impact, because it disproportionately harms women, socialized to go into nurturing and support roles. And the brutality and lack of concern about family dynamics is based on sexist and patriarchal value systems that feminists oppose. The fact that politicians aren’t castigated for the way that they’ve screwed up juvenile justice, foster care, child services, and a host of other social work services, but are burnt in effigy if they raise taxes, is based on a value system that has sexist roots. Women bear the brunt of the impact our collective amount of family dysfunction, and they also bear a large portion of the work of fixing that family dysfunction.
More importantly, it helps explain why even excuses like “Women go into different fields” don’t cut it. Those excuses in turn assume that the relative pay that fields get is based on justice, when that assertion is not only absurd but often undermined by the apologists who then go on to claim that it’s men with disadvantages!
So, let’s look at some claims that Maddox makes specifically now, in light of the ideas above.
Maddox claims, “The prevailing theory is that it’s because women are conditioned to have lower expectations in the workplace.”
No, it isn’t.
This is one of the best examples I have ever seen in history of a strawman argument, a deliberately weak interpretation of one’s opponents viewpoints that makes one’s position seem stronger in false comparison.
One is free to look through my blog for the times I’ve discussed gender inequality and race inequality. Like this one on color-blindness , or this one on the bronie phenomenon , or this salient piece on sexual assault and statistics. You’ll see plenty of explanations for both of these factors, and I doubt this conditioning is found plenty of time.
Or let me turn to other scholars.
The European Commission names the following factors: “Direct discrimination, the undervaluing of women’s work, segregation in the labor market, traditions and stereotypes, and balancing work and private life”. Of those, “lower expectations” is a small part of just one, “traditions and stereotypes”.
The Center for American Progress similarly looked at the breakdown. They found that “Women need an additional degree in order to make as much as men with a lower degree over the course of a lifetime. A woman would need a doctoral degree, for instance, to earn the same as a man with a bachelor’s degree, and a man with a high school education would earn approximately the same amount as a woman with a bachelor’s degree”. These are just massive inequalities, what we’d call a big “signal”.
So what are the causes of the gender gap?
Well, one does happen to be lowered expectations in the workforce, sure. Women rightly begin to believe that their efforts just don’t get noticed. Many understandably begin to retreat.
Maddox has a reply on this front, though. He states, “There are plenty of powerful, successful and wealthy women who break this mold every day”.
There’s “plenty” of people who win the lottery too, Maddox. Want to suggest that as a means to fix the gender wage gap problem?
Fact is, there are some women who are hugely assertive. And this is a great thing. But the reason why feminists don’t “focus on the positive”, as he’d like us to do, is because that’s giving people a pat on the back before the job is finished.
This is one of the great challenges of activism, and it’s obvious Maddox doesn’t do any of it. Bono, for example, had a wonderful TED Talk where he went into how poverty is improving globally. He wanted to talk about the positive.
But he also knew that if he just did that then people would stop working. Men and white folks want to hear about how sexism and racism are over so they can stop having to work on those fronts.
Bono pointed out that there’s two possible ways that you can end up going when you see improvements: You can see complacency, and a slowing of change, or continued effort, and the continued rate of change.
The reason why we have to talk about the negative so often is because so many men are insistent that nowadays it’s an advantage to be a woman or a black person in the workforce. Many people refuse to believe that there is still something like gender and race inequality. (And I mention these together because they are linked, as the Center for American Progress article shows, and because the resistance to the idea of white privilege shares many of the same cognitive problems and failings as the resistance to the idea of gender privilege).
Worse, those women who are assertive themselves face challenges. I’ll quote again from Tim, citing “findings of researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which demonstrates that women who haggle for better pay are viewed much differently than their male counterparts”. In other words, women are just perceived as bitchier when they are assertive. Women find themselves in a double-bind: They can not negotiate, and be viewed as wallflowers, or try to be assertive and aggressive in negotiation, and be viewed as non-collegial.
However, the domestication of female aspirations is only one factor.
Another is the “old boy’s” network. That may be part of why we’re seeing women enter the lower echelons of industries like law and finance, but still struggle to make it to the higher echelons. The best jobs are still filled by social networking, by one’s “Rolodex” as it was put in the olden days, and having access to those traditional mechanisms like being the gold buddy or the college roommate of a person at the highest echelons is a massive part of the issue. Inequalities in what scholars call “social capital” is a big part of what causes inequality in general.
There’s also subconscious bias. Both male and female employers, human resources professionals, interviewers, etc. are likely to be saddled with subconscious ideas about how women should act and what their capabilities are. The Implicit Attitude Test project, for example, has found that for both race and gender, people’s subconscious biases are quite easy to replicate and even get some degree of measure upon.
Another factor is the perception of the “mommy track”, which saddles women intended to have kids and those who have no such expectation (and is itself partially the result of the second shift, where women continue to bear the disproportionate brunt of domestic work even when they work as hard as their partners). For those of you who believe that the “mommy track” is rational, Tim Wise has a wonderful set of responses.
Here’s another brilliantly obtuse argument: “Women make up about 51% of the workforce, according to the US Department of Labor. So either companies don’t want to save 23% on their wages, or the “77%” wage gap number is bullshit, because both can’t be true”.
But since women are about half the workforce, they’re already represented roughly equally. In fact, the female unemployment rate is slightly lower at the moment than the male unemployment rate. There’s just not a ton of women out there to hire more cheaply.
Maddox makes a false analogy to how employers are willing to hire non-English speakers to pay them less, ignoring that part of this dynamic is that employers have biases against native peoples of color and often hire immigrants in preference, but this is below comment. It’s cheap to hire illegals because you can threaten deportation. You can’t deport women. Women get paid less because of other factors, garden-variety sexism (both subconscious and overt bias) being part of it.
But you know what? I’ve heard employers joke, and heard stories of employers joking, about hiring the minority or hiring the woman because it will be cheaper. See, here’s the thing: Wages aren’t fixed by magic. In most environments, how much people are paid depends on their ability to negotiate. And as we’ve seen, on average, a woman’s ability to negotiate is just lower than a man’s, for both psychological and economic reasons.
Another one of Maddox’s claims that shows how utterly unfamiliar he is with this debate and how out of his depths he is is this gem: “critics struggle to contend with the fact that countless studies have shown that women have a higher job-satisfaction, despite the supposed wage inequality.”
But this “paradox” is only a paradox to people who don’t do any work in social justice.
Here’s an acronym that anyone who actually talks to feminists is likely to know: PHMT, or “Patriarchy Hurts Men Too”.
It may be possible that men are pushed into professions that are more competitive, more high-paying, but less good for the soul. They may be being pushed into professions that make them wonder if they are contributing.
So while women may be getting the shit end of the stick when it comes to quantifiable advantages like socioeconomic status, income, etc. they may be getting a psychological advantage.
Men are trapped by patriarchy just as much as everyone else. Privilege is always harmful to the people who have it. Orwell pointed out just how utterly banal colonialism made the English in “Killing an Elephant”. He made clear that both the colonized and the colonizer enter into a mutual relationship of mistrust and dependency.
Tim Wise has talked about how privilege can make people sick: It can give us a false sense of our invincibility. White men can often sail through life with every expectation that the world will just keep picking up after them and keep fixing things for them. The few times that doesn’t happen can be terrible for us, and we’re getting to the point that it’s just such a big handicap to have such a small and sheltered view of the world.
The best example Tim offers is about the Columbine shootings. He was told by a SWAT officer that they didn’t go in to save the kids at Columbine because they knew that these were white parents who would ring them out to dry for the slightest mistake.
In that moment of hesitation, those officers made it so that the privilege for those Colorado kids was no longer an advantage. In every other environment in life, they’d see doors open for them. But for the kids that died, there would no longer be any doors, because of the one time privilege did come back to haunt them.
But here’s the point. Orwell, Paulo Freire, Tim Wise, Noam Chomsky… the host of people who make philosophically clear how bad privilege and power is for the powerful are not going to then say that that power doesn’t matter.
Men may have the less satisfying jobs, but we are more likely to get the jobs that give us the money that we can use to have plenty of satisfaction when we get home. We get to have power, influence and respect.
And if we want to talk about stress? Women have a lot of stress too. A friend of mine had a friend point out to a lot of debate that people’s fear of sharks or lightning is viewed as cute or benign (and I would add that our fear of non-white terrorists is applauded), while women’s fear of being raped is viewed as misandry, even though the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network has found that one in six women are going to be victimized in their lifetimes. Maybe RAINN is wrong. Maybe the number is one in eight, or one in sixteen. But it’s enough that a woman has some justifiable reason to be afraid when they go out of how men look at them.
Women have a lot of justifiable fear that their boyfriends or husbands will shoot or beat them.
Women have a lot of stress over entering the mommy track, or having their opinions constantly ignored by men.
Maddox then uses a Politifacts statement, but it’s emphatically clear that he didn’t get the meaning of it:
“The Obama campaign took a legitimate statistic and described it in a way that makes it sound much more dramatic than it actually is. The 77-cent figure is real, but it does not factor in occupations held, hours worked or length of tenure. Describing that statistic as referring to the pay for women “doing the same work as men” earns it a rating of Mostly False.”
The 23% pay difference is a real statistic. The Obama campaign used that statistic, for sake of simplicity, instead of those statistics that take into account the other factors listed. That’s something I find to be problematic, but you will note quite clearly that the Politifacts review here does not deny that there’s a wage gap.
Of course some of the factors in the wage gap aren’t sexism. In sociology, you rarely see any one variable, even one as major as gender, explain anything more than 10 to 15 percent of the variation in a set of data.
But people who have done the disaggregations, even conservative scholars, have found that you can control for variables all day long and you still get an average pay gap differential. The Center for American Progress article has a very careful breakdown and analysis. And we also know from a host of studies that women face all sorts of barriers, so it’s not just a statistical observation but a tested fact that there are barriers to women in the workforce.
Moreover, can’t anyone see that even the factors of “occupations held, hours worked or length of tenure” are themselves partially influenced by sexism, so that you can’t eliminate them from the analysis as if they weren’t part of the problem?
If women face hiring barriers, of course they’ll struggle to get into occupations that might look good on the resume. They’ll be the first fired and the last to get hours and opportunities, so their average hours worked and length of tenure will go down too.
Let’s say that it actually looks worse to an employer that someone has four years of experience as a social worker than four years of experience in finance.
How is that not itself sexist or irrational?
Why is the value system that would lead us to think that going to Wall Street to try one’s hand at being a millionaire, or being a good programmer or something, is somehow intrinsically better for one to be a good worker than having the ridiculous emotional and physical stresses of social work?
That was actually always part of the point of affirmative action in employment. It was the recognition that a woman’s resume and a man’s resume that seem to be roughly equivalent (have the same numbers of years worked at firms of equivalent prestige) just aren’t.
Maddox offers this theory: “My own theory, completely unsubstantiated by any studies or research, but a sound theory nonetheless: jobs that pay lower have fewer responsibilities, less at stake and are generally lower stress. A foreman on a construction site has significantly more responsibilities and stress than a low-stress, lower-wage job.”
Okay, I’ll agree, that may be part of the factor. But let’s say that women who try to enter, say, venture capital are encountering discrimination, like with the Ellen Pao case recently and the fact that the number of female venture capitalists has gone down in recent years. Wouldn’t they be facing just as much stress as their male counterparts?
So Maddox’s argument, even if it were true on average, would ignore how many times sexism still causes inequalities that aren’t justifiable.
Worse, why would women choose low-stress jobs so frequently?
Maybe they’re already encountering the stress of being the subordinate group in a social environment.
Maybe women are constantly told about their weaknesses and inabilities.
Maybe they don’t want to have to fight through the glass ceiling.
Sound sexist? It isn’t, actually, but it’s also just true.
A poll in Australia found girls were perceiving increased sexism. One of the most astonishing aspects of studies like this is the reaction that many men have. They often say, “Oh, that’s just women being sensitive”. Men, especially white men, are so predisposed to think that women are wrong that they disagree with women about their own perception of reality. Isn’t it obvious how sexist that is? A woman saying, “I feel like I’m encountering more sexism these days” being told by a man (who would not be usually the person encountering misogynist bias) “No, you’re not” is a microcosm of the entire gender problem we have.
You can find this research everywhere if you want. Women are constantly telling researchers that they encounter problems and then they’re ignored.
Let’s step back just a second and think.
Why are we so surprised that sexism still exists?
Why are we so surprised that racism still exists?
The 1950s and 1960s are still in living memory. The era when women were supposed to be housewives and black people were supposed to be segregated is one that a lot of people alive today lived through.
It takes time and generations for these trends to change.
Yes, we’ve seen amazing progress on both these fronts. We may well soon have our first female President after having our first black President.
We’re seeing better progress on homophobia too. Class inequality is worsening, but I think we are seeing people begin to see more and more clearly how unequal our economic system is at its base.
So if someone tells us, “Sexism is over”, we should react with skepticism.
We should be thinking, “Wow, that’d be a pretty remarkable fact. The Glass Ceiling Commission found huge inequalities in the 1990s, men and women are still socialized differently in everything from their toys to their cartoon shows… I better check to make sure”.
A careful person would look for inequalities that might be hiding. They would consider how maybe things may not be as rosy as they would like.
And a person doing this is not a misogynist, or an inveterate pessimist. Hell, they’re very likely an optimist.
A responsible person makes sure a problem is resolved before they stop worrying about it.
Can’t we do the same with gender?
After extensive discussion, this was elicited from Maddox:
“… I acknowledged the possibility that the remaining 5-7% wage gap may be due in part to discrimination”.
After which I was accused of “writ[ing] a lot” but not “say[ing] a lot”.
So then, folks, we should do something about it. (Putting aside that I do not agree that “the remaining 5-7% is due to discrimination” and view it as a lot more. However, because these variables are all interconnected, you can’t really disentangle them, as Tim Wise pointed out to David Horowitz).