It’s a statistic that’s tossed around with abandon by Democratic politicians: “A woman makes 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.” The clear implication is that this disparity is entirely nefarious, the result of Mad Men-style workplace sexism. But as a new NBER study shows, it’s not that simple—at least, not anymore. In fact, the gender pay gap can increasingly be explained by the differences in men and women’s voluntary career choices. Brookings summarizes the NBER results on its blog:
Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn analyzed data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to investigate the gender pay gap in 1980 and 2010. In 1980, the gap was shrouded in statistical mystery, with almost half accounted for by the “unexplained residual.” Women offered an explanation for the “unexplained”: straightforward discrimination. By 2010, however, the “unexplained” element had shrunk. Much of the gap can now be explained by observable differences between men and women—in particular, their occupation and the industries they work in.
To be sure, the NBER study found that a significant portion—almost 40 percent—of the gender wage gap remains “unexplained.” And though other experts have found this portion to be smaller, and though the “unexplained” category need not indicate straightforward discrimination—there is evidence women are less likely to ask employers for raises, for example—sexism, conscious or unconscious, is likely in the mix.
But the study’s most striking finding is that the proportion of the gap attributable to entirely legitimate factors, like choice of occupation and industry, has risen dramatically over the last generation. Many feminists would conclude that women’s tendency to choose lower-paying industries, and lower paying careers within those industries, is itself the result of sexist cultural norms. Not only has this claim not been substantiated, it’s hard to see how it could be: Women who go to medical school are more likely to become primary care doctors than surgeons, and working class women are more likely to work in office administration than in natural resource extraction. Is this because of subtle cultural sexism, or because women, on average, place a higher premium on flexibility and are more averse to physical risk?
Regardless of whether you think that gender disparities in career choice are driven by the patriarchy or by healthy personal preferences, the fact is that such choices can account for more and more of the pay gap. And that means that the types of workplace anti-discrimination and liability measures that some progressives are pushing for to combat it, both at the federal and state level, will probably deliver diminishing returns.