Women can’t “choose” to earn less than men if they aren’t given the same options.

By Grace Hawkins

10 • 14 • 2018


I’ve been told recently that the wage gap doesn’t exist.

Since I am capable of doing simple math, I looked it up, and yes, $41, 312 (the average woman’s salary in the U.S.) divided by $51,640 (the average man’s salary in the U.S.) results in a ratio of 80:100, or 80%.

The wage gap exists.

What that means is, on average, women earn 20% less than men. (This discrepancy increases as we factor for race, with black women earning 37% less and Latinas earning 46% less than white men.)

What it doesn’t mean, necessarily, is that women earn 20+% less than men for working the exact same job.

Yes, there are plenty of fields where women are paid less than men for performing the same job. But even if that isn’t the case across the board, women are still paid less than men on average. Why?

The most common explanation for the 20% wage gap, and the reason many people feel comfortable claiming it doesn’t exist, is that women occupy lower paying fields of work than men. With this in mind, it would make sense for the average woman’s salary to be less than the average man’s.

Problem solved, right?

What this explanation fails to examine, however, is why women occupy lower paying fields of work to begin with.

I’ve heard the justifications for this too. Most often, they involve the idea of choice: women choosing to prioritize family over work, choosing to major in the humanities instead of the sciences, choosing to be nice at work instead of playing hardball.

It only makes sense that personal choice plays a factor in the gender wage gap. No one is holding women at gunpoint and forcing them to study cosmetology instead of welding. But there are several ways in which the choices women make might not be as free as we think.

Choosing being Liked over being Respected

One of the biggest “choices” women make that perpetuate the wage gap is choosing not to negotiate for higher salaries.

Women are significantly less likely to negotiate for a higher salary than their male peers. To demonstrate, a study by Carnegie Mellon University found that, of students graduating with a master’s degree, 57% of men negotiated for a higher starting salary at their first job. Only 7% of women did the same.

Some might say that this is a result of women choosing to be liked over being respected, which is also a commonly used explanation for why women occupy fewer leadership positions than men.

But for women in the workplace, choosing not to negotiate is less of a choice than a survival instinct. Studies show that both male and female colleagues often resist working with a woman who has negotiated for a higher salary because she’s seen as more demanding than a woman who refrained from negotiating, and according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a woman who explains why she is qualified or mentions previous successes in a job interview can lower her chances of getting hired.

The fact that women “choose” to be unassertive in the workplace can’t be explained away by claiming they are naturally agreeable or communal creatures. Our complacency is not derived from free choice. Ambitious and often deserving women face an undue penalty for self-advocating, leaving them silent and tethered to a lower rate of pay.

Choosing Family over Work

Let me start by saying that women are in the workplace, and we’re here to stay, even after having children.

70% of mothers with children under 18 participate in the labor force and over 75% of them are employed full-time. Moreover, 40% of families with children rely on a mother as the primary or sole earner of the household.

Even though working moms supply the bedrock income of nearly half of American families, mothers earn less money on average than fathers, and the more kids they have, the less money they earn. A study at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that on average, men’s earnings increased more than 6 percent when they had children, while women’s decreased 4 percent for each child they had.

You might assume this trend occurs because women prioritize family more than men do, and will often choose a flexible, lower paying job over a rigid higher paying one. But according to the Massachusetts-Amherst study, this phenomenon explains only a quarter to a third of the discrepancy between the earnings of mothers and fathers.

Even so, women’s tendency to choose lower-paying, more flexible jobs isn’t as much of a choice as we think. With fathers in heterosexual marriages contributing only 8 hours a week to childcare (as opposed to mothers’ 14 hours) someone has to pick up the slack. And in today’s economy, where employees who work long hours are rewarded with disproportionately more pay than those who work more flexibly, it makes sense to have one parent compromise their career to focus on the home, rather than to have both parents work flexibly (for less pay) or to outsource childcare.

It also makes sense that the parent that compromises their career should be the one who earns less. Most often in heterosexual relationships, this means the woman, which only reinforces the pre-existing gender pay gap.

And even in families where the father is the lower-income earner, studies show he is likely to do even less housework than a breadwinning father in order to compensate for his “failure” to uphold gender norms. This, obviously, pushes an unfair amount of familial responsibility onto breadwinning moms.

It’s not that women “prioritize family and flexibility”, its that we shoulder the responsibilities of family life at the cost of our careers, and do so because our husbands and our society demand it.

“Yeah right,” might be thinking. “I’d love to sit at home all day and babysit.”

Firstly, if you’re interested in a career as a house husband, I’m taking applications.

Secondly, everyone else feels the same way. 39% of mothers and 50% of fathers say they feel as if they spend too little time with their children. Everyone wants more time to be at home with their families, which is why we need an economic system that supports the lifestyle of a family with two working parents, a.k.a. the most common type of family in the US.

Making flexibility the norm at work, offering paid maternity and paternity leave, and sharing the burden of housework and childcare equally between heterosexual partners would give American women the free choice, rather than the personal choice, to prioritize work and family as they please.

The Choice We Should Be Focused On

When we talk about choices that contribute to the wage gap, we need to stop explaining away societal inequalities by claiming women choose to earn less. The choice that’s being made is a societal one. We are choosing to keep women out of the most influential spheres of society, from Congress to the Fortune 500. Instead of avoiding investigations into the wage gap by blaming women for the results of a system that disadvantages them, we need to examine our own choices when it comes to who we place in positions of power. Maybe then women will be able to earn the pay that they deserve.

Graphic by Justin Capone