Written by John Perazzo
December 2, 2008
By John Perazzo
December 2, 2008
By now, most Americans are well aware of the near-unanimous support that Barack Obama received from black voters in this year's presidential election. Largely unnoticed, however, is the fact that it was not African Americans, but rather a much larger demographic-women, particularly unmarried women-that ultimately was most responsible for catapulting Obama to his historic victory.
Female voters supported Obama over John McCain by a very substantial margin of 56 to 43 percent. But among unmarried women, the differential was an astonishing 70-to-29 percent. While female voters favored Obama on a wide variety of issues - among them health insurance, abortion rights, funding for public education, the environment, and the threat of terrorism - it was on the economy that Obama really won their vote. In particular, women supported Obama for his perceived understanding of their purportedly unique economic challenges, most notably the issue of "pay equity" in the workplace.
Dr. Vicky Lovell, a Director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, summarizes Obama's success as follows: "In this time of extreme economic insecurity, Obama spoke directly to women's concerns. He projected empathy for women's financial struggles and understands how hard it can be to keep a job today while caring for families. Our research shows that women feel more anxiety over financial burdens and their overall economic well-being than men-and, in fact, women are more economically vulnerable than men. Obama offered hope while acknowledging women's struggles." IWPR Study Director Erica Williams adds that Obama "spoke directly" and offered "concrete policy solutions" to "women's issues like pay equity," thereby helping to "increase women's turnout [at the polls] and the gender gap." Marcia Greenberger, Co-President of the National Women's Law Center, concurs that Obama effectively articulated a plan for "passing essential legislation that provides basic fairness in the workplace."
Indeed, the Obama campaign was proactive and persistent in drumming home the candidate's commitment to eliminating the gender "pay gap" that supposedly pervades corporate America. "For every $1.00 earned by a man," said the Obama campaign website, "the average woman receives only 77 cents. A recent study estimates it will take another 47 years for women to close the wage gap with men." To rectify this inequity, Obama assured Americans of his commitment "to take steps to better enforce the Equal Pay Act, fight job discrimination, and ... give women equal footing in the workplace." His message was expertly tailored for women, who, according to one recent AFL-CIO survey, identified pay equity as their number one concern.
But Obama's assertion-and society's belief-that women are underpaid by American employers in comparison to men is demonstrably untrue. As longtime employment lawyer Warren Farrell, who served as a board member of the National Organization for Women from 1970 to 1973, explains in his book Why Men Earn More, the gender "pay gap" is not a result of gender bias or of workplace discrimination. It can be explained entirely by the fact that women as a group tend, to a much greater degree than men, to make certain employment choices which, even while suppressing incomes, afford certain lifestyle benefits that women value highly.
Consider some highly pertinent facts. Far more often than men, women tend to seek employment in fields that are non-technical and which do not involve the physical-as opposed to the social-sciences. These fields offer a variety of benefits that women find attractive. For instance, they offer a high level of physical safety; they involve work that is performed indoors as opposed to outdoors (where bad weather can make working conditions poor); they feature a pleasant and socially dynamic working environment; they have lower levels of emotional strife; they offer desirable shifts or flexible working hours and require fewer working hours per week or fewer working days per year. As well, such fields frequently do not require long commutes. By contrast, men on average commute 36 percent farther to get to work, a fact that translates into about $1,500 in extra annual pay. Similarly, these fiends do not require geographic relocation, with the result that women make up only 18 percent of all workers who are transferred abroad by their employers.
Such advantages come at a cost. In making certain fields more attractive, they increase the pool of applicants, and consequently exert downward pressure on salaries because the supply of applicants exceeds the demand for their services. Yet, this is less of a problem for women than one might assume and politicians may contend. Only 29 percent of women, versus 76 percent of men, report that their primary motivation for working is to "build wealth." Women are far more likely to pursue jobs that they perceive to be socially useful, while men, for various reasons, tend to give more emphasis to money.
An even more significant cause of the gender pay gap is that women tend to have compiled fewer years of uninterrupted service in their current jobs than men. Indeed, women are far more likely to leave the workforce for extended periods in order to attend to family-related matters such as raising children. This is simply a life choice to forego some degree of financial reward in exchange for the emotional reward of being an at-home parent, whether full-time or part-time. During the course of their overall work lives, men accumulate an extra 5 to 9 years on the job as compared to their female counterparts, and each of those additional years translates to approximately 3 or 4 percent more in annual pay.
When all of the above variables are factored into the equation, the gender pay gap disappears. That is, when men and women work at jobs where their titles, their responsibilities, their qualifications, and their experience are equivalent, they are paid exactly the same.
This is by no means a new phenomenon. It was true even in 1981. In fact, most Americans would be shocked to learn that even in the 1950s, the pay gap between men and never-married women (i.e., those women who were unlikely to have temporarily left the work force in order to raise children) was less than 2 percent. Never-married white women actually earned 6 percent more than never-married white men a half-century ago.
Despite the fact that this evidence has long been established, the notion that discrimination explains the gender gap in pay endures. Thus countless women continue to believe that American society gives them a raw deal in terms of pay and that ill-conceived "equal-pay" laws are the sole solution. In campaigning for the White House, Barack Obama capitalized on this ignorance on the part of some of his female supporters. If his message of "change" was intended in earnest, the president-elect could do worse than begin his tenure by repudiating the old myth of "unequal pay."