The gender wage gap has long been an issue of importance for feminists, and one that consistently finds itself on the UN and government agendas. Despite this, there is a persistent idea among many in mainstream society (mostly men, and some women) that the gender wage gap is simply a myth, that women are paid less on average because of the specific choices that women make in their careers. Everything, they claim, from the industry a woman chooses to establish herself in, to the hours she chooses to work, to her decision to take time off to spend with her children, and so on, leads to lower pay, for reasons, they confidently assure us, that have nothing at all to do with sexism. Now we could delve into, and rebut, these points at length, but in this post, I will focus only on the assertion that the wage gap exists partly because women choose to go into industries that just happen — what a coincidence! — to be lower paid.
So here’s how the argument usually goes. Women, they say, gravitate towards lower-paid industries such as nursing, cleaning, teaching, social work, childcare, customer service or administrative work, while men choose to work in politics, business, science, and other manly, well-paid industries. Those who propagate this idea usually aren’t interested in a solution, since they see no problem, but if asked to provide one, they might suggest that women behave more like men, one aspect of this being to take up careers in male-dominated industries that are more well-paid (and respected, but they seldom say this out loud).
But is this really a solution, even a small one? What their analysis misses out is the question of how the average pay levels of different industries are decided in the first place. There’s demand and supply, of course, but another factor is the perceived value of the role, and what it means to society. Let’s examine a traditionally male-dominated role that is very well-respected, and well-paid, in many parts of the world — that of a doctor. In the UK, it is listed as one of the top ten lucrative careers, and the average annual income of a family doctor in the US is well into six figures. It also confers on you significant social status, and a common stereotype in Asian communities is of parents encouraging their children to become doctors.
One of my lecturers at university once presented us with this thought exercise: why are doctors so highly paid, and so well-respected? Our answers were predictable. Because they save lives, their skills are extremely important, and it takes years and years of education to become one. All sound, logical reasons. But these traits that doctors possess are universal. So why is it, she asked, that doctors in Russia are so lowly paid? Making less than £7,500 a year, it is one of the lowest paid professions in Russia, and poorly respected at that. Why is this?
The answer is crushingly, breathtakingly simple. In Russia, the majority of doctors are women. Here’s a quote from Carol Schmidt, a geriatric nurse practitioner who toured medical facilities in Moscow: “Their status and pay are more like our blue-collar workers, even though they require about the same amount of training as the American doctor… medical practice is stereotyped as a caring vocation ‘naturally suited‘ to women, [which puts it at] a second-class level in the Soviet psyche.”
What this illustrates perfectly is this — women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. It is the other way round. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value. This means that anything a woman does, be it childcare, teaching, or doctoring, or rocket science, will be seen to be of less value simply because it is done mainly by women. It isn’t that women choose jobs that are in lower-paid industries, it is that any industry that women dominate automatically becomes less respected and less well-paid.
So it is not enough for us to demand access to traditionally male-dominated fields. Yes, we need to stop holding women back in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, and yes, we need to allow more women to take an interest in, and succeed in business and politics. But far more than that, we need to change the culture that imbues us with a sense of the inferiority of women, that tells us, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that anything a woman does is obviously easy, requires little effort, and is of minimal value to society.