Frat Boys and Male Responsibility: Why What Male Apologists Think They Know is Wrong

After debating the issues of gender inequality in the labor market for about seventy-two hours, I think it’s time to set some issues straight.

Scholars who argue that the gender wage gap is either shrinking or gone claim that once you control for factors like experience, choice of major, occupation, female negotiating strategies compared to male negotiating strategies, and a host of other factors, the apparent wage gap disappears.

By that reasoning, even though the average wage gap between men and women is about 22 to 23 cents, it might only be six to seven cents of that difference that’s unexplained and therefore possibly attributed to gender inequality, discrimination, bias or patriarchy.

Now, this is actually an important argument to engage with. Statistics matter. Understanding the array of causes for things matters.

But I can in turn assert that every single cent of that twenty-two cent difference is due to sexism.

How can I do that, even if other factors seem to control for the variation?

Imagine a person gets sick after he spent multiple nights out drinking. Let’s say it happens to be the flu that he gets sick with.

(Image to this effect courtesy of Ask Men and Getty).

I say, “Wow, dude, you probably should have taken it easy, you got the flu because you partied too hard”.

Another person comes in and says, “How dare you criticize partying? He got the flu because of the influenza virus!”

In fact, both causal narratives are correct, because both had to happen for our hypothetical frat bro to get the flu.

If he had just been exposed to someone else who was a carrier for the flu but he hadn’t been partying, he wouldn’t have gotten sick.

Similarly, if he had just been partying but had managed to avoid someone with the flu, he wouldn’t have gotten sick.

In fact, it could also have been that he didn’t drink enough orange juice, or had too much stress (which may have been the cause of the party binge), or that he doesn’t wash his hands enough, or that other people don’t wash their hands enough, or that he has asthma.

Similarly, a square isn’t just a square because it has four sides. It has to have four equilateral sides.

In a 2000 e-mail debate with David Horowitz, Tim Wise argued the following, discussing the fallacy of trying to break down the aspects of racial inequality: “There is no way to break down “responsibility percentiles” into some numerical percentage, and say, “stereotype threat” explains 10%, and motivation 15%, and family structure 20%, etc…These things can all interrelate, and trying to break it down as you would like me to do, is not possible or logical, any more than Murray and Herrnstein’s ridiculous claim that they could determine what percentage of IQ was genetic and what part environmental, despite the intrinsic interrelationship between both kinds of factors”.

So, in fact, it can be the case that 100% of the wage gap, or at least the vast majority of it, is caused by sexual inequality. That doesn’t mean it’s all caused by sexist bias on the part of employers. But since sexism isn’t just about biases on the parts of employers but also about biases in schools and in popular culture, body image inequalities, biases on the parts of male peers in organizations, pressures to go into particular fields, socialization that causes people to be interested in particular fields and to have certain personality and behavioral traits, social capital inequalities, etc., sexism can be a part of the picture in every single variable.

That doesn’t mean it’s the only part of the picture, any more than the frat boy’s sickness wasn’t just caused by him hitting the bars. Political systems, the effect of statutes, organizational policies, changes to markets and industries as a result of globalization, geography and its effect on labor mismatches, etc. could all also be part of the picture. And yes, sure, genetics, hormones and differing capabilities in various respects could be a part of the picture too.

But, insofar as sexism is part of the picture, it can be resolved.

I made this argument in my original response to Maddox and I have subsequently made it repeatedly, but it really bears going down the line.

In Facebook discussions, someone responded to my evidence of rampant sexism in the construction industry by claiming that women could just leave a business if they didn’t want to work there because of sexual harassment.

But that would mean that a woman would be leaving a job, reducing her experience as she had to enter the job market again and spend anywhere from weeks to months trying to find a new job, where she would again begin at the bottom. Her experience would be reduced. So too would she be less likely to have a good reference.

I’ve been subsequently told by woman after woman about how they’ve left fields because men ignored them, or treated them like sex objects or secretaries. What that looks like on a resume to someone who doesn’t know about the nature of gender discrimination is a person who is wishy-washy.

There’s a host of factors as to why women don’t have the level and duration of experience that their male colleagues do.

Similarly, the fact that women leave the workplace to have children is itself not a justifiable cause for wage inequality.

Why don’t men leave the workplace for exactly as long? Why aren’t men the ones going to PTA meetings or having to leave work early to pick up their children?

Both the imbalance in the way domestic duties are handled and the social contracts regarding maternity and paternity leave penalize women disproportionately for having children. But that’s not a fact of life. Paternity leave, anti-discrimination laws that protect mothers, education to employers, etc.

To again quote from Wise who makes this argument astutely: “Indeed, for men who want to share child-rearing responsibilities, the exigencies of the workforce make it difficult to exercise that choice. Most men don’t have the kind of job flexibility that would allow them to take time off, job-share, take leave (paid or unpaid), and otherwise split the home responsibilities with their wives and partners. Indeed, for a man who wanted to do any of those things, there would be a constant fear, not unfounded, that his employer could (and likely would) replace him, probably with another man whose nurturing instincts and commitment to gender equity in the home was far less concretized. Unless the social structure supports shared sacrifice, sacrifice will end up being made by those with the least institutional power, irrespective of one’s personal desires”.

This isn’t that hard of a sociological point to comprehend. But none of the men I’ve been discussing the issue with seem to understand that it takes a man and a woman to make a baby.

Worse, plenty of women who never plan to have children are going to struggle because employers and male peers will just assume that they’ll flake out.

Another factor that might explain women’s lower wages and their lack of representation in the higher echelons of many kinds of organizations would be their negotiating strategy. The Carnegie Mellon and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government study that Wise cites, however, finds that women who adopt such aggressive strategies aren’t perceived as courageous but as aggressive or unpleasant.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, it makes sense that women who were aggressive like this would be misperceived as normbreakers. This may be a country that applauds normbreakers, but it’s a human trait for us to mistrust those who break the rules. (For a really interesting analysis of how the American belief in liberty and in the importance of mavericks can be hemmed in by factors like the imagination of a good folk community as opposed to bad outsiders, I recommend people read Mead’s Special Providence, a far-from-leftist book that examines what the author views as the major strands of American political thought).

Men are supposed to be aggressive, so we expect it from them. In a society that rewards assertiveness and competition, that’s a good thing.

But women aren’t supposed to be aggressive. Sometimes, of course, there will be a boss who admires an aggressive woman who seeks out her own fate. But on average, the fact that people aren’t used to women asserting themselves this way is going to mean that those who do are harmed too, just as with those who don’t.

See, that’s an interconnection of two institutions. Capitalist institutions tend to reward the people who stick to their guns in negotiation. But patriarchy changes how behavior is perceived. You have to combine both.

What’s really important about all this is that these are all average trends.

Sure, some women will be able to overcome these trends and become the next Oprah or Martha Stewart.

But, on average, can’t anyone who’s intellectually honest admit that women just having that additional little bias going against them when they go to each job interview, when they go to each performance review, when they fill out each application form, is going to add up over time? Some women will be so awesome that they’ll overcome it. But there’s just as many awesome men who will overcome too. Looking at the extraordinary people, as we often do in these discussions, is misleading because they’re inherently outliers. Most people are somewhere on the middle in terms of a bell curve of competency and talent. Most people are not Oprah. And a major aspect of male privilege, gender privilege, etc. is that it allows people to be mediocre.

People like me.

See, most people I’ve met say I’m one of the smartest guys, even the smartest guy, they’ve ever met.

And yet in school and in college I got only pretty good grades.

I was exemplary in some ways, but in actual fact I could have worked much harder.

Tim Wise found the same thing. Almost every white male who does work in these areas talks about how they kept getting breaks that they didn’t realize they were getting.

I’m not saying I didn’t deserve those chances. I think I did. But plenty of women got those breaks too.

Similarly, George W. Bush was a mediocre President. He was a mediocre success in his pre-political life too. He got lots of help. Now, George W. Bush actually probably isn’t a dumb guy. He probably shouldn’t have been a politician, but people who know him talk about how charming and quick-witted he can be.

Barack Obama is not mediocre. You may dislike him, but I don’t believe anyone honest can deny that he’s a brilliant orator and a very smart guy.

It takes people like Barack Obama to break into the highest echelons if they’re black, or gay, or women, or poor. It takes people like George W. Bush to succeed if they’re straight white men from affluent backgrounds.

I know this is tough to say. I know it sounds judgmental. But the point is that we need to stop demanding that people be superhuman and instead start getting rid of unequal barriers so that people can just be good enough.

Now, in actual fact, a host of scholarly evidence finds that there are pernicious and ongoing inequalities.

Luca Flabbi found, for example, that “it is possible to separately identify gender discrimination and unobserved productivity differences. The equilibrium shows that both prejudiced and unprejudiced employers wage discriminate. Maximum likelihood estimates on CPS data indicate that half of the employers are prejudiced, average female productivity is 6.5% lower, and two-third of the gender earning differential may be explained by prejudice”. Flabbi then used a model of an affirmative action policy and found that it would result in “a redistribution of welfare from men to women at no cost for employers’ welfare”. Okay, Flabbi may be wrong. But this is a modern source, a scholarly source, from 2010, that did a very careful analysis and looked at the data. Moreover, you’ll notice that Flabbi did find that female productivity is on average lower than male productivity, even though that didn’t explain the variation. (In fact, I’d argue that even the apparent productivity difference itself can be traced to sexism, given that women in sexist organizations are probably quite likely to be more disengaged and not put as much effort into their work, are probably less likely to be getting organizational support like continued professional development, etc.) I’d recommend reading the opening page (which is free if you click on the “Article” tab and then scroll down) which notes that most industrialized societies have a gendered wage gap too, from Japan to Northern Europe.

One of the biggest factors that creates consistent inequality for women is the ongoing existence of the “old boy’s network”. That’s a somewhat pejorative term for the social capital advantage that white men generally have. Since white men were in charge of the society for as long as they were, they’ve constructed fraternities, bowling clubs, golf clubs, etc. to be methods for amplifying social capital. A white man who goes to an affluent country club has a host of other affluent people to talk to in order to get potential job offers, investment opportunities and crucial information. Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone and his subsequent work has pointed out how important social capital is as a predictor of success. Putnam argues that social capital tends to have a leveling effect, but while this has some truth to it, inequalities in social capital can also serve to keep out women and minorities.

So Steve McDonald found that “people in white male networks receive twice as many job leads as people in female/minority networks. White male networks are also comprised of higher status connections than female/minority networks”. Similarly, Steve McDonald, Nan Lin and Dan Ao found that “Findings from nationally representative survey data reveal significant white male advantage in the number of job leads received through routine conversations when compared to white women and Hispanics”. Worse, these differences are higher at the “highest levels of supervisory authority”, which helps explain a large part of the reason why women and minorities find it so hard to break into those uppermost echelons of the workforce such as becoming senior partners or CEOs.

It’s easy to find hundreds of scholarly analyses like this. It’s so common that Elizabeth Kelan opened her analysis of what she calls “gender fatigue” in organizations (organizations being aware of gender inequality yet having to try to present themselves as being as neutral and fair as possible) claims that “Although gender discrimination remains a feature of working life in many contexts, research on gender in organizations has shown that workplaces are often constructed as gender neutral”. Basically, pretty much any scholar in sociology is going to tell you that sexism and gender bias are real phenomena.

The Kelan article is especially useful because it points out one of the trajectories that happens in discussions like this. “Instead of denying gender discrimination, workers acknowledge it can happen but construct it as singular events that happened in the past and they place the onus on women to overcome such obstacles”. This isn’t just true in the workplace. Most feminist activists will have had the experience of finally eliciting a concession that discrimination may be real but then being told, as Maddox did in his opening article and later when pressed on Facebook, that focusing on discrimination is victimizing.

In that vein, there’s one more point I’d like to bring up to demonstrate how much this discussion is basically about people, usually men, avoiding their responsibilities.

Let’s say for a moment that there was actually no aggregate wage gap between men and women.

However, all of the data about, say, sexual harassment or discrimination in the workforce could still be true. It just would not be having an impact on wages per se.

Okay, that’d be a good thing, were it true. (To be clear: It’s not).

But shouldn’t we still do something about it?

In other words, sexual harassment isn’t just bad because it causes people to have lower wages. It’s also bad because it’s dehumanizing, cruel and evil.

Even if all women who endured discrimination could still succeed, it’d still be a psychic toll. Hell, even if women were ahead of men in wages and political success, it’d still be wrong to ogle them and treat them like objects.

But the men who enter these discussions never talk about this.

They virtually never discuss their own fears and anxieties. (They’re plenty willing to vent about losing a job to a minority or a woman because of affirmative action, but that’s not the same thing).

The combination of vitriolic anger and pseudo-scholarly distance that men affect in these conversations is creepy as shit. It’s like Kevin Spacey in Se7en.

It’s easy to hide behind numbers. It’s (emotionally) easy to do statistical analyses.

It’s much harder to actually talk to a woman about her experiences with injustice. It’s even that much harder to listen.

I have yet to hear from any of the apologists for gender inequality what men should do about any of the phenomena we’re talking about. Even when it’s clear that women are encountering barriers in law. Even when it’s clear that women are facing widespread sexual harassment. Just as whites in debates about racial inequality are very clear about how black people should stop joining gangs or wearing their pants low but never about what white people might want to do to promote dialog or become more fair judges of character. Just as those defending class inequality talk about how the poor just need to work harder and live like monks but never talk about how the rich should change their behavior.

A friend of mine has told me, “Other people say, ‘I’m one person, what can I do?’ You say, ‘I’m one person, look what I can do’”. The reason that I have that attitude is because I believe in personal responsibility.

Until the people who enter these debates talk about what they can do, until they can drop the pretense of objectivity when they’re defending the privileges that people like them are reaping, the debate is bankrupt from the beginning.

For those of you who are actually interested, here’s an additional annotated bibliography.

This analysis by Ridgeway looks at the way that gender framing occurs.

Ineson, Yap and Whiting’s data based on studying hospitality management students found evidence of serious sexual and homophobic discrimination in the hospitality industry.

This USA Today article is actually a very centrist analysis as to why there’s inequality in the construction industry, noting that lawmaker apathy is a big cause.

Despite some evidence that women have higher levels of job satisfaction, there is extensive evidence of stress inequalities between men and women as well as between whites and minorities, as this Perry et al. article indicates.

This Catalysts examination looks at some of the causes for gender inequality in the legal profession.


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