Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Salary Gender Gap 

Seen a couple posts lately addressing the income disparity between men and women. I have no reason to doubt the statistics. But they are misleading, because they seldom distinguish between individual incomes and average incomes. Those are two separate issues, but they are often treated as one issue. The problem is not with the data, but with how the data is applied. Even if there is complete equality with respect to individual incomes, there will tend to be a disparity between average incomes, because income is based, at least in part, on years of service, and women tend to spend fewer years (on the average) in the work force than men.

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During the time that I lived in America, I was an elementary teacher for a number of years. In my profession, there was complete equality between men and women with respect to individual incomes. We were paid according to a matrix negotiated by collective bargaining. An individual man and an individual woman with exactly the same education and exactly the same years of experience had exactly the same salary. Yet even back then there was considerable discussion about how to address the disparity between men and women with respect to average incomes. Women often spend several years out of the work force during their childbearing years, and this affects the averages for all women. One idea being discussed was to give women credit on the matrix for the years they spent at home raising their children. But do you know who objected to that most strongly? Not men. No, it was the women who had stayed in the work force and paid for daycare all those years.

So, to the question: What should be done to narrow the gap between average salaries for men and women?

Answer: Nothing. It's an unworthy goal. The reason it's an unworthy goal is because the only way to accomplish it would be to force women to be in the work force for exactly the same number of years as men. But would anyone want to live in such a world? The other day I was listening to Elizabeth Elliot on BBN Radio talking about her mother. I found myself asking, "Is there still room in today's world for this kind of mother?" If the answer to that question is still "yes," then we have to accept the fact that average incomes for men are going to be higher than those for women. You see, the ideal society is not a society where all women are forced into the work place away from their children. The ideal society is a society where a woman who wants to work can have any job she wants and can expect to be paid exactly the same as any man who has the same education and experience as she does, but also where a woman who prefers to stay home with her children is free to do so. There is no way that average incomes for men and women would be the same in such a world. The math just isn't there. So the problem with the gender gap is not that it is too wide, but that it is too narrow. In an ideal society the gap would be considerably wider, since I'm sure we can all agree that if every woman who would prefer to stay home with her children could afford to do so, there would be even fewer women in the work force than there are now, and thus, women would have fewer average years of experience than men.

But what about turning it around? How about a world where men and women took turns staying home with the children? Would this work? I think it could perhaps be done to a larger extent than it is now, but men will never stay home as much as women. Unweaned children are not easy to care for. Once they are weaned, it is easy. But there is that period of time before they're weaned when it is really tough. It's hard to explain the frustration of holding my precious little one, and she is crying her little heart out and sucking on my shirt pocket and I don't know how to tell her that I'm really not trying to starve her to death, I just don't have anything to give. As I said, once they are weaned it's a whole different ball game. Weaned kids are easy to please. Perhaps I am saying this partly as a matter of comparison--I was an elementary school teacher, so I took care of kids for a living, and it's easier to take care of your own kids than to take care of someone else's. Anyway, I fully understand that not everyone is into working with kids, I'm just saying that I think anyone who has will tell you that it is much easier to care for young children after they get to the point where you can feed them manually, or they can feed themselves. But before they are weaned, it's really frustrating.

China and America are basically the same--both parents work. Japan is different. In Japan, women are expected to leave the work force at about 25 years of age and get married. A women over 25 who applies for a job is almost viewed with suspicion. I was talking with a woman from Beijing who is married to a Japanese man. She said she went to apply for a job once, and the boss asked her, "Does your husband allow you to work?" No boss in America would ask a question like that if he valued his life. In China, it probably would not occur to him to ask. So China and the US are basically the same in that regard, but with one important difference: In China, there is a built-in cultural expectation that grandparents should care for their grandchildren. This is starting to change now, but I still see a lot of children with their grandmothers. So women usually can expect that the little one will be raised by the grandmother (usually the father's mother). I have tested this assumption many times.

Every year I ask students, "How many of you want to get a job when you graduate?" In a class of 25 students, usually about 20 of them will be women. When I was teaching database in the Software College at Beihang University it was the opposite, but I am teaching at an arts school now. At first they don't get what I am driving at, but then I ask, "How many of you would prefer to marry a rich man so that you don't have to work?" No takers.

I try to sweeten the pot a little. "How about if he buys a car for you?" Nope.

"How about if he hires a maid so that you don't have to do any housework?" Maybe.

"His mother will be your servant." That might get a hand or two.

In the main, though, women expect (and want) to have a career. I'm sure part of the reason is that I teach college freshmen. They are focussed on school right now, so the idea of throwing it all away after all they went through to get here is not going to be appealing. I suspect the answers would be different if I asked the same question down the road a few years.

This year, I tried a completely different approach. I said, "If you had a really good job, how would you feel if your husband stayed home and cared for the children, and then you could support him?" They spat that one out without chewing it.

"If he is my husband, then of course he should provide for our family! He's a man!" Another young lady stood to her feet. "I cannot accept this. I do not want to marry a small white face!"

When young ladies in China talk about their own careers, they sound like feminists. But they're not, really. They expect men to be men. I was asking the question seriously, because I had read about a couple here in Beijing who chose to try that approach. She had a very good job and made a lot more money that he did, so they decided that he would be a house-husband and stay home with the children. She said it was hard for her to come home from work after a long day and see the children all running to their dad to talk about what they had done in school or something. He was the mom. Come to think of it, if I remember correctly, this was a Chinese American couple who had come back to China to work. Perhaps this would not be accepted in ordinary Chinese culture. Would I do this myself? Well, I would not want to do it for a lifetime, but I think for two or three years I could accept it. Kids only have one childhood, and if you have to make a few sacrifices to make it a secure one, I think you should be willing to do that. But I think we can all agree that in most societies, the predominant stay-at-home parent will be the mother. For how long? It's hard to nail it down to an exact time period, but we'll say eighteen months. Most children would be able to be weaned by eighteen months. So multiply eighteen months by the number of children and you have the minimum amount of time that a mother would need to be out of the work force to provide for unweaned children. But that's just the minimum. Many women will elect to stay home until their children are in school. But even after they start school, some mothers will feel that it is better to be more or less available. How many grade school kids do you know who wouldn't rather come home to a mother if they had a choice between that and an empty house?

Even good kids get themselves into trouble when they lack supervision. I remember years ago, I was walking across an open field in North Dakota and I saw a neighbor kid standing by a pole. It was in the dead of winter--maybe 10 below zero. I couldn't figure out what she was doing there. But I could hear her crying. As I came near, I saw what had happened. Walking by the pole she just couldn't resist the temptation to stick out her tongue and touch the pole with it. Of course, her tongue immediately froze to the pole and she was a prisoner. I said, "Hold still." I took my fingernail and scraped her tongue away from the pole. She lost a little skin off the tip of her tongue, but other than that she was none the worse for wear. Kids need parents.

Some people seem to have the idea that professional women are not capable of being stay-at-home moms. But that's not necessarily true. Perhaps we can agree that they have a harder time making that decision, but once they have made it, they are often very competent homemakers. They are educated, intelligent, often well organized and often have well-developed people-management skills. So if they can figure it out financially, not a few of them will be inclined to extend that eighteen months a few years. In fact, many professional women who originally intended to return to the work force after a few years, end up becoming entrapraneurs in order to give themselves greater flexibility. So they will experiment with a variety of options and spend many more years out of the work force than they originally intended. Is this a bad thing? Maybe in some cases, but I would think that most women who have done it would tell you that the benefits gained were well worth the cost of putting family first. But that cost does include spending significantly less time (on the average) in the work force than men, and thus, having a significantly lower salary.

Of course we believe that a man and woman who do the same job should be paid the same. But to advocate a society where average salaries for men and women are exactly the same is to long for a world too horrible to contemplate. May it never be.

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