Feminism F.A.Q.s: Is There Really a Gender Wage Gap?

by | September 5, 2012
filed under Feminism, Politics

Feminism FAQs Title Screen

by Jarrah Hodge

In working on my other Feminism F.A.Q.s videos I’ve argued that while women have made many advancements, feminism is still necessary because we live in a patriarchy in which women still experience inequality. Just one commonly-cited piece of evidence for this view is the existence of a persistent wage gap between men and women.

But for some reason despite the plethora of evidence on this point, certain sections of the population seem bent on denying there is a wage gap or if they’re forced to admit it exists, arguing it’s entirely due to “choices” women make to sacrifice career for family or to avoid higher-risk jobs. It’s not just me who hears this – we saw it played out in an argument on Meet the Press between Rachel Maddow and Alex Castellanos earlier this year. When I tweeted I was making the below video, I was referred to videos echoing this argument that any gender wage gap is due to women working less and moving in and out of the workforce over the course of their lives. Some commenters on previous videos accused me of “spouting ignorance” and one argued “women actually make more money doing the same job as men.”

I watched the videos and read their sources but they don’t explain the research and articles I read in writing this video, which are linked into the transcript below.

As Bryce Covert at The Nation wrote (and I highly recommend her article for more on this issue), “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Gender Wage Gap.”


Hi. Welcome to Feminism F.A.Q.s. I’m Jarrah Hodge. Today: “Isn’t the gender wage gap just a myth?”

This is a common criticism lobbed at feminists who argue that women have not yet achieved full equality. The critics tend to say that either the wage gap doesn’t exist, or that where it does it’s entirely due to women’s choices, not discrimination.

On the first point, the evidence is clear: the gender wage gap does exist.

In Canada women working full-time, year-round make 72 cents for every dollar a man makes. American women aren’t far off at around 77 cents per dollar, and the gaps are even bigger for women of colour.

That makes the median pay gap over $10,000 a year. That’s $400,000 over the course of a lifetime.

But what about the second point? Aren’t women just making choices that result in them making less, like taking more time off to take care of kids or avoiding more dangerous jobs that might provide a “risk premium”?

It’s true we live in a society where in nuclear families women are generally the ones expected to make career sacrifices to take care of kids and aging relatives.

Women who take time off in this way may experience what’s called a “motherhood penalty” in terms of lifetime wage loss, but we don’t see the same thing for men who take time off; there’s no similar “fatherhood penalty”. So what kind of a choice is this really?

And even this can’t account for the entire pay gap.

For one, not all industrialized countries share the gap. The Conference Board of Canada gives ups a “C” grade for wage equality with our  28% gap. By contrast, Denmark’s gap is only 9%.

Second, The wage gap narrows but doesn’t disappear even when controlling for full vs part-time work, educational level, and the sectors in which people are employed. The US Census Bureau found men were paid higher in 19 out of 20 traditionally male occupations and 19 out of 20 traditionally female occupations.

As for risk premiums, the US Department of Labor found this can’t account for the gap either. In fact jobs involving knowledge are the most rewarded in the marketplace today, yet women with the same educational attainment are still making less.

Now I’m  sure most of the wage discrimination isn’t due to conscious discrimination  – some of the wage gap is due to the fact some women aren’t socialized to negotiate better working conditions or salary increases for themselves on their own. And some women in precarious positions might not be able to risk trying to negotiate.

To sum up, the gender wage gap is a big issue that needs to be tackled from many angles, but claiming it doesn’t exist or saying it’s all because of women’s choices and that makes it okay isn’t acceptable or true.


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  • Sam

    Jarrah. The wage gap was actually debunked in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Labor. It is indeed, from women’s choices, that the gap exists. The gap only exists in salary related jobs; it’s an earnings gap, which isn’t the same as making less for equal work. Check here:


    You can also check the Bureau of Labor Statistics, woman make just as much as men as hourly paid workers. In fact, since at least 2001 women have been out-earning men. I say 2001 because the dates don’t go back any farther. The numbers are very close though. The highest difference is 2,241 while the lowest difference is 128. Just select ‘Workers paid hourly rates’ in the first box. That means the wage gap only exists with salary jobs (and that will be addressed in the paper above that I have sent). You can check with their database here for confirmation:


  • jarrahpenguin

    Thanks for that link but it doesn’t actually debunk the wage gap – on the contrary it agrees there is a gap but overall argues that it can’t be pinned down to discrimination. Some findings listed in that study are a motherhood penalty of 3-5% after controlling for other factors, the finding that women did not on the whole tend to have more flexible work arrangements (flexibility being correlated with authority, not gender) and that the wage gap was significantly less but still in existence when including fringe benefits in the calculation (compared to a larger gap when just including hourly wages).

    As I say in the video and above, the wage gap is a complex issue with many facets, including regional and demographic variation, weight given to benefits such as health care, and whether women deserve to be paid less in the long-run for bearing the brunt of the gendered expectation of domestic and caring labour.

    The CONSAD study you cite and the others I have linked to above certainly reinforce the complexity of the problem.

  • dublederp

    I see the earnings gap so often being used and abused by feminists as a soapbox to push this, that, or other message–either as evidence of how bad women still have it or of the need for greater legal intervention into the workplace. While you haven’t abused the issue nearly as much as your peers (nuance–hooray!), your treatment of the issue is not entirely logical and your presentation of the evidence not entirely accurate.

    The final paragraph of the foreword from the CONSAD study demonstrates the study and its conclusions are incongruent with the way you’re presenting them. While it acknowledges the complex nature of the issue, it states:

    “Although additional research in this area is clearly needed, this study leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”

    More broadly, too often feminists frame the issue as you have: “whether women deserve to be paid less in the long-run for bearing the brunt of the gendered expectation of domestic and caring labour”

    This is a reductioninst oversimplification for at least a couple reasons. Even though work/family balance is obviously a factor in the wage gap, (1) the way you’ve framed that factor is fallacious because it presupposes that men and women are not only equally and equivalently equipped as parents and as workers, but equally interested in fulfilling those roles in the same ways. And IMHO, (2) it presents a rather negative view of parenting and a sexist view of women for disproportionately engaging in it. It denies women agency as individuals by reducing their actions to the consequence of “gendered expectations”.

    Obviously socialization plays a role in behavioural choices, but the other half of the picture in explaining gender differences in choices is biological and this is, as a matter of course, deliberately ignored by feminism in examining all this and other gendered issues because feminist theory is founded on the notion of ‘tabula rasa’. Social and scientific research has gradually been painting a grayer, more nuanced picture of this social constructionist vs. biological essentialist paradigm. Feminist theories for explaining the world–including the earnings gap in question–are still based on the social structures, employment standards, and post-secondary graduation rates of decades past; they have not caught up with the the demographics reflecting a changed society.

    Indeed there are examples of countries with smaller earnings gaps. But a substantial overall gap is universally present, and the differences are not necessarily or even probably a product of how those societies view women as workers. Rather, they are more likely a product of the way those societies view the raising of and provision for children as an individual vs. collective venture, and–surprisingly, for feminists–a product of how they view the parental role of fathers (see e.g. the 2 months of father’s only parental leave allocated for Swedish dads and the effect it has had on Swedish society since the mid-90’s).

  • AA

    Wage gap, I believe, exists in this patriarchal society because of structural inequality (power hierarchy and relations)-that’s why more women need to be in politics with power to make and change policies to eliminate systemic gender inequality in wage and salary. Also, discrimination against women and all those gender stereotypes (e.g., ‘women are not as good at math as men’) in society need to be eliminated because they affect women’s motivation and entry into higher status jobs like engineering…”Imaginary Engineering” or “Re-imagined Engineering”: Negotiating Gendered Identities in the Borderland of a College of Engineering.Detail Only Available By: FOOR, CINDY E.; WALDEN, SUSAN E.. NWSA Journal; Summer2009, Vol. 21 Issue 2, p41, 24p (AN 44316626)…great blog by the way-keep making social and political change to bring about gender equality! :)

  • D Page

    First, why do you disable your comments on YouTube? It makes it difficult to criticize you on a fair platform that isn’t on your website. I wanted to stop by to say this video is flat out incorrect. You assert that it exists, then use evidence that actually is contrary to your assertion, thus making it false. Please look more into the basic statistics on why the wage gap isn’t an issue. Mathematicians like me find it ridiculous that this still can be considered an issue still. Your presupposing that men and women should make the same choices, which is ridiculous to do since that violates what we know about the sexes. The calculation you are then emposing is a poor model, thus should be discarded. You can’t expect in a free country to force that consequence as men and women make different choices, which isn’t any form of sexism. Anything it is wrong to suppose that men and women should be in balance in any field. If you have a problem seeing this, I suggest investing in looking in the opposition better, and actual experts in this field (economists have been debunking this nonsense repeatedly).