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Explaining the “gender pay gap”

It does not exist — or, at least, not as you might have thought

We have glorious news from the frontline of the gender wars — the gender pay gap no longer exists. Which, given the effort that has gone into the fight is good news, isn’t it? 

We can now turn our attention to solving some other human problem, which will be a joy.

Now this isn’t quite how the campaign group, Pregnant Then Screwed, put it, but it is the nub of truth in what they’re saying. For they delve into the pay gap numbers and find that mothers earn less than fathers. They then tell us that

The motherhood penalty accounts for almost all of the gender pay gap.

Which is, as we can all observe, absolutely great. We now know that we’ve beaten that gross unfairness where people get paid less — or more — just because of their God given (or sperm club) gonadal arrangements and pay differs by what people do with their lives. Excellent, that’s an unfairness removed from society.  

The joy should be less than unconfined, though — for while they’ve achieved the correct answer they’ve done so by looking at entirely the wrong numbers. 

That is nonsense. Obviously

They’ve compared the incomes of fathers against those of mothers, then said that this difference explains the gender pay gap. That is nonsense. Obviously. For even in these very modern days fathers are, statistically at least, going to be male so any pay gap in their favour will include the being “male” bit as well as the “being a father” bit and ditto in reverse for being a mother and or female.

It is possible to do this the right way, which is to look at the incomes of mothers who are female and non-mothers who are female, then men/fathers and men/non-. It’s also possible to slice and dice other ways — gay men tend to earn less than hetero men, lesbian women more than hetero ladies for example. 

This is probably — probably — a result of the next finding. For what we find across the population – and do note that this is all about averages and nothing to do with the performance or outcomes of any single individual – is that mothers earn less than non-mothers among those with the equipment to be either, and fathers earn more than non-fathers among those similarly genetically blessed.

The actual numbers vary a little across different western world populations but a mother earns 9 per cent less for the first child and extra but diminishing amounts for each subsequent. Fathers seem to make 8 per cent more than non-fathers. Yes, this is after accounting for age — something necessary as incomes tend to rise with that variable. 

One of the nice things about economic numbers is that they do have to add up. And that split there does match up with the finding that childless, never married women in their 40s average earnings higher (1 or 2 per cent) than men in general even if still lower than fathers. It’s also true that the earnings split is in favour of women in early adulthood — only blowing out at about the age of primagravidae (about 30 or so these days).

While we have entirely different sources for our numbers — different numbers even — we’re all reaching the same conclusion. There is no gender pay gap, there’s a motherhood one. And, well, in a viviparous mammalian species with distinct versions of child care – that hunting and gathering/nurture difference — who is all that worried about that? 

It’s also possible to appeal to the actual science here, not mere statistical numbers. Claudia Goldin became the second female Nobel Laureate in Economics for her analysis of exactly this point. Once we account for everything there is no fundamental gender pay gap – there’s one on choices made in life and parental status and that’s that. I have been pointing this out, even in The Guardian, for at least 15 years (she proved it, I pontificated, so she gets the gong).

It’s undoubtedly true that previous generations of women were not economically free. They should have been and the world is an entirely better place because today’s are. We have killed off that pay difference based upon gender and we are left with merely a difference upon what people do with their lives. There is still a difference — sure there is — but it is based upon individual choices. Which means that the question is not what do we do about this difference, it’s do we do anything about it at all? 

If incomes differ by people’s decisions about what to do with their lives then why should we do anything at all about that? 

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