Today is Equal Pay Day, and North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp is celebrating by claiming that women in North Dakota make just 73% of what men make:
— Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (@SenatorHeitkamp) April 9, 2013
I don’t doubt that the statistic is accurate (though Heitkamp doesn’t give us a source to work from), but there’s context to these sort of numbers that the politicians and activists usually leave out.
A raw comparison of all men to all women really isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison of pay due to traditional gender roles. Case in point, it’s really not fair to compare the earnings of a 40-year-old man and a 40-year-old woman working in the same job in the same industry when the man may have worked in his career for 20 consecutive year while the woman may have taken months or years off to have children and start a family.
It also wouldn’t be fair to compare two “single” women – one divorced with three children and one who never got married – given that the never-married woman made much different lifestyle choices that undoubtedly impacted her earning potential (which is a point Thomas Sowell was making decades ago, see below).
The point is, there are lifestyle choices that impact earning ability, and the disparity between male and female pay has a lot more to do with those choices than with discrimination. The assumption politicians like Heitkamp make is that the disparity is the result of discrimination, and so must be corrected with public policy. The reality is that the disparity results from the fact that men and women are different.
Women have the babies. There’s no getting around that. Also, women tend to approach their careers with a different set of priorities than men do. Whereas men tend to focus on maximizing take-home pay, women tend to focus more on fringe benefits such as insurance coverage, flexible schedules and time off.
There’s nothing wrong with these priorities, but they result in pay disparities.
And let’s not forget that discrimination has an economic cost to it. If we’re to believe that employers across the nation are actively discriminating against women, we’re to believe that these employers are also punishing themselves by prioritizing this discrimination over hiring the and promoting the best possible people.
That’s hard to swallow.