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Six Feminist Myths: Myth #2

Even a cabinet minister bought into this one.


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'Women get paid less for the same work'

It's often said that women earn less than men. A common claim is 'women only have 80% of men's wages', and the debaters want to use that to claim women are being discriminated. Another common claim is 'women get paid less than men for the same job'.

Even a highly placed person like the minister of integration Erik Ullenhag bought into this myth (and a myth it is). He said this at the beginning of 2011:

'It's clear that discrimination occurs in our society. Women earn less than men and still have a difficulty reaching top positions.'25

Several explanations

Those were the feminist claims. So let's now study reality. To begin with, we have to point out that a difference between the two groups doesn't automatically mean one of the groups is discriminated or oppressed. I don't hesitate to describe such a routine conclusion as unintellectual. A disparity can have legitimate causes, and that's precisely the case when it comes to wages.

The National Mediation Office is the authority with responsibility for wage statistics in the country. According to their report from September 2010, women during 2009 earned 14.8% less than men. That's the total so-called wage disparity and that's for the entire labour force, both public and private employees, both blue collar and white collar workers.

But a disparity in average wages does not mean that women and men are paid differently for the same job. There are a great many factors that explain why the average wage is higher for men. The most important factor is that there are very big differences in choice of career - men more often will choose careers with high salaries and women often choose careers with low salaries. It's important to stress that this is their choice.

But there are further factors that explain the disparity. Some of these are:

  • Unused daily work time
  • Number of years experience
  • Nature of the work
  • Level of difficulty
  • Managerial position or not
  • Education
  • Experience
  • Level of enthusiasm, flexibility, eagerness to sacrifice, etc.

It should be noted that nothing indicates these are the only factors that explain the disparity in wages. The list contains some of the factors that are somewhat easy to calculate.

As soon as one begins considering the differences between what men and women work with, and how they work, the disparity shrinks quickly to almost nothing. What remains is the so-called 'inexplicable wage disparity'. This might be explained by discrimination, but it can also be depend on factors which aren't measured when the surveys are conducted. We don't know. Different barometers on wage differences are of varying ambition when it comes to weighing in the explanatory factors, and it's most likely not even possible to create a survey which weighs in all conceivable factors.

So there is no basis for any debater to claim to know that the remaining 'inexplicable wage disparity' is caused by discrimination against women.

And how big is this 'inexplicable wage disparity'? It varies from survey to survey and from social sector to social sector but in general it's very small. There are many statements from experts and researchers which assume there is in practice no unmotivated disparity at all between men and women in Sweden today. Wage rates are equalised.

State employees are equalised

Let's start with state employees. The most recent figures available are from September 2009. Back then the 'inexplicable wage disparity' between men and women was 1.3%. I quote from the report of the Swedish Agency for Government Employers:26

'The statistical analysis shows that the average disparity in wages can almost completely be attributed to quantifiable factors. A great part of the disparity is caused by more women than men working part time, the level of difficulty and the nature of the work, and by more men than women being managers. Further, the nature of the work and salaries are different at different state agencies. There are also disparities in education, experience, age, duration of employment, and in the geographical region of the work. The disparity that remains, the so-called 'inexplicable wage disparity' which cannot be explained by the quantifiable information available in the common statistics in September 2009, was 1.3%.'

Then they have yet another interesting statement:

'Taking into account that this analysis was carried out with the help of some statistical classification and on a central level where detailed knowledge about types of work was incomplete, we can establish with complete confidence that there remain decisive differences in actual work tasks and areas of responsibility within the groups that are compared. So the 'inexplicable wage disparity' in reality can be explained by there being remaining differences between the jobs that constitute factual reasons for the disparity.'

The Swedish Agency for Government Employers writes in black on white that the remaining 'inexplicable wage disparity' probably is not caused by discrimination but has legitimate causes. So in other words, zero discrimination in the state sector.

County council employees are equalised

In the county council sector the 'inexplicable wage disparity' is one percent. I cite a report from the Association of County Councils published in 2003:27

'If one declares the wage relationship for women and men without taking into consideration what they work with, women's average wages are 71% of men's. The main explanation for the big disparity in the wage relationship for women and men is that the county council sector is an example of a sector with many career groups with different requirements for education and skills where the men are in the professions with higher levels of education such as medicine, dentistry, and management. If one takes these variances in career structure into account, the average wage for women is 99% that of the men.'

Then the Association of County Councils continues with a suggestion of what causes the 'inexplicable wage disparity' of 1%. I quote:

'Further factors to analyse are so-called age structures, time in the profession, and differences in work duties. The level of difficulty, the level of responsibility, authority in the profession in question, as well as the employee's performance are examples of further factors taken into consideration when setting wages at the local level.'

So the Association of County Councils suggest a number of factors that can explain that last one percent. In practice their reasoning means there is no wage discrimination in the county council sector. Wage rates are equalised.

County employees are equalised

The 'inexplicable wage disparity' between men and women in the county sector is also one percent. In their press information from 2007, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions writes:

'When differences that are caused by profession, age, and education are taken into account, women's wages in the counties are 99 percent of men's wages.'

One must say that it's a rather superficial and incomplete correction if one only takes profession, age, and education into account. There is therefore room for further factors which would provide a legitimate explanation of that last percent.

In practice on can therefore agree that there is no wage discrimination in the county sector either.

Employees in the private sector are equalised

And then we have the private (commercial) sector. In the most recent report28 from Svenskt Näringsliv (Swedish Commercial World - it's from 2005) it emerges that when differences in profession, age, and education are taken into account, the 'inexplicable wage disparity' is 2.2% for blue collar workers and 6.5% for white collar workers. It should then be noted that Svenskt Näringsliv in their report point out that their own statistics have shortcomings in their correction for factors that can explain the wage disparity. I quote:

'A few important variables are missing in the wage statistics of Svenskt Näringsliv, for example number of years in a profession, number of years at a corporation, level of difficulty of a job, and the complexity of the job. We know from other studies that these factors influence wage levels. We can therefore conclude that the wage differences would have been smaller if the material could have been scaled for these factors as well.'

The greatest 'inexplicable wage disparity' is found amongst white collar workers in the private commercial sector - the category with most typical professions. And it's precisely in these professions it's most difficult to measure all the legitimate factors that can explain the wage gap. Here it's a question of enthusiasm, performance, flexibility, eagerness to work overtime, willingness to move, and similar things. Svenskt Näringsliv wrote this about the inexplicable wage disparity for white collar workers:

'After processing 6.5% remains, which has its explanation in amongst other things the level of difficulty of the job, the number of job swaps, budget responsibility, number of subordinates, prior experience, the versatility of the employee, etc.'

A similar wording is used to comment on the 'inexplicable wage disparity' for blue collar men and women. The choice of the phrase 'is explained by' indicates that Svenskt Näringsliv's department of wage statistics believe that there are natural explanations for the 'inexplicable wage disparity'.

So there's no wage discrimination in the private commercial sector either.

Wage discrimination is no longer a problem

An interesting and very thorough research effort into wage differences between the sexes was carried out by Dr Eva M Meyerson and professor Trond Petersen. In an article in the magazine Ekonomisk Debatt29 (Economic Debate) from 1997 they write:

'Our study, which covers a 21 year period, shows that the differences in wages between men and women with the same positions and places of work are very small. [...] Our research results are completely in line with what many researchers have already suspected: direct wage discrimination is no longer a problem.'

It's also interesting to study the result of the gigantic wage review completed in 2008 by the Equality Ombudsman. It's called 'Miljongranskningen' ('the Million Review'). The wage situation was analysed for 1 million employees in all sectors of the labour force, all in an effort to find wage discrimination. The ombudsman writes in the report that non-objective wage differences were found in only 0.7% of all cases. It should be noted that the difficulties in weighing in all explanatory factors also beset the Million Review. Amongst the 0.7% were men who felt they were being paid too little in comparison to women.

There's a lot more than discrimination that can explain the 'inexplicable wage disparity' which remains when one has corrected some of the factors. For example, difference between the sexes in attitude and skill in negotiation. Research carried out by Dr Linda Babcock, professor in economics at Carnegie Mellon University, and author and journalist Sara Laschever shows that young men routinely negotiate their pay rises whilst women in the same age group most often don't.30 Other studies show that men most often try to negotiate their way to a higher salary whilst women try to negotiate their way to fewer work hours instead.31

The fact that men sometimes have lower wages than women in a specific profession is systematically ignored in the debate. Particularly in professions dominated by women it can happen that men earn less than women. For example, the Association of County Councils mentions in the report mentioned earlier that female physiotherapists earn 101% of what male physiotherapists earn, and the corresponding figure for occupational therapists is 101%, for dental hygienists 103%, for medical secretaries 104%, and for maids 103%.

The gap gets smaller and smaller

There are many indications that women's wages as a percent of men's wages are on the rise. The wage gap gets smaller and smaller. This is what the National Mediation Office wrote in their 2010 report:32

'The report shows that the wage gap between women and men has been reduced in all sectors between 2005 and 2009.'

This trend can be expected to continue. Amongst other things, it can be ascertained that women are very heavily overrepresented in universities and institutions of higher learning. This will in all likelihood have a huge effect when it's time for a career and therefore a salary. The portion of women who are managers grows very fast. This is what the Swedish Agency for Government Employers wrote in their 2010 report:

'In the population that's studied here in 2009, 41% of managers were women. [...] This indicates a strong increase since 2000 when only 22 percent were women.'

And this is what Svenskt Näringsliv wrote in the report mentioned earlier:

'So it's the situations that will change in the dynamic process which now characterises the Swedish labour market. As more women study longer and gain managerial positions more and more, they'll be moving towards the highest wages more and more.'

More female managers of course means higher average wages for women.

Women passing men by

Will women's wages increase so much that the wage gap will soon be inverted with women earning more than men? There are signs this is happening. New statistics from Great Britain, the US, and Norway show that women in some segments have not only caught up to men in wages but have also gone past them.

In the case of Great Britain it's about statistics from the Office for National Statistics33 published in December 2010 that show that women 20-30 years old working full time earn 2.1 percent more than men in the same age group. Men do earn more in the group 30-40 years of age, but the gap to the men's advantage has in ten years been reduced from 10 percent to 2.9 percent. For the age span 20-40 it's a case of a strong swing in the wage balance between the sexes to the women's advantage (a swing that will most likely continue).

This is commented on in an article34 by Ruth Lea, economist at the Arbuthnot Banking Group. She says:

'There is no wage gap at all for women without children, and for women under 40 the wage gap is insignificant. We've always known that single women have wages as high as men. The idea of discrimination against women has always been a fantasy. I think the equality lobby is running out of things to say.'

Spectacular female achievements in wages are also being reported in the US. In some regions, unmarried women have strongly passed men in the same age by in wages. I cite Time magazine35 at the end of 2010:

'According to a new study of 2000 townships conducted by a market survey company, the median salary for full time working young women is 8 percent higher than for the corresponding young men in 147 of the 150 largest cities in the US. In two cities, Atlanta and Memphis, women earn about 20 percent more. In New York young women earn 17 percent more than young men, and in Los Angeles 15 percent more. This agrees well with earlier research from Queens College, New York, which indicated this was happening in the big cities. But the new study shows that the differences are greater than one previous thought, with young women in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Diego earning 17%, 12%, and 15% more respectively than their male counterparts. And it agrees well with small areas like the Raleigh-Durham region and Charlotte in North Carolina (both 14% more) and Jacksonville Florida (6%).'

There's a simple explanation for women earning more than men, according to professor Andrew A Beveridge who researches demographics at Queens College New York. According to Svenska Dagbladet, he said:36

'The simple reason is that women are now better educated than men. The differences are enormous. [...] This means too that women get better jobs.'

Even with our neighbours in Norway there are reports about an inverted wage gap. In a survey published in March 2011, they studied the wage conditions for women and men one year after they received their diplomas in industrial economics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). The women's average base salary was NKR 437,000. The men's base salary was NKR 430,000, 7,000 less than the women.37 A woman who is interviewed fells the comment: 'Many companies have a deliberate strategy to recruit more women'.

At NTNU the women earn more than the men in seven of the 17 biggest service categories, amongst others: professorships, researcher positions, and fellowships.38

It's probably just a question of time before we see an inverted wage gap even in Sweden, as we too are headed for a situation where the female half of the population is significantly better educated than the male half. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics,39 almost twice as many women receive diplomas as men. This figure has been for the most part constant since 2005.

This situation is of course a ticking bomb when it comes to a balance between the sexes. We are most likely on our way to a situation where the female is the better paid sex.

Conclusion: The claim 'women get paid less for the same work' is nothing but a myth.

Copyright © Pär Ström/Stiftelsen Den Nya Välfärden. Translation copyright © Rixstep. All rights reserved.

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