Gender equality is an admirable goal that is almost universally agreed upon in our nation. We want men and women to have the same rights and equal access to opportunities. That is uncontroversial. What is wrong, however, is seeing unequal results and categorically inferring unjust treatment. In other words, what looks, feels and smells like sexism may not actually be sexism.
We must first understand that seemingly organized, designed patterns may naturally arise from individual decisions that are not motivated by bigotry. For example, in seminar classes, the men and the women often sit on opposite sides of the table with no interlay. Is this evidence of a conscious decision to segregate due to sexism? No, of course not. If every member of the class prefers to sit next to at least one person of his or her own sex, then the pattern of complete segregation will occur organically. Thus, patterns of behavior that seem collectively organized can emerge from the aggregation of individual choices that stem from innocent motives.
Obviously, it is true from empirical data that women are on average paid less in the labor market as compared to men who perform comparable services. Many will immediately proclaim that this is irrefutable evidence that women are being discriminated against in the work place. They may push for legislation that would force employers to pay the same wage to both sexes. Although this is very well intentioned, as with many cases, the results do not reflect the sentiments. It produces the opposite effect. Women will actually be negatively affected by an equal pay law.
If there exist occupations in which men hold a competitive advantage over women for whatever reason, forcing equal pay will cause those occupations to become even more male dominated. The only way the less productive gender can find work is if they offer to work for less. Denying them the opportunity to do that just pushes them out of that labor market. It does nothing to help either gender. Similarly, if a woman has an advantage in a certain industry, an equal pay law would actually hold them back from achieving the wage they would have gotten in a competitive market.
Furthermore, if some firms truly were sexist, an equal pay law would protect those employers from the only thing that threatens them: the market. Firms that practice bigoted sexism must do so at a real economic cost in a free market. For a particular job, if the women are just as good as the men, then an unbigoted firm will have a clear economic advantage over the sexist firm. The unbigoted firm is able to choose from a wider pool of qualified workers because it is willing to pay commensurate wages to women. Clearly, the sexist firm suffers in terms of skilled labor and also market competition for its bigotry. If, however, we decree that there must be equal pay for both men and women, we effectively remove the economic penalty that had existed on the sexist employers. The firms that had given women fair wages will now be forced to cut them from the workforce, since their wage was artificially raised. Also, the unbigoted firms lose the competitive advantage they held over the bigoted firms, since now their hiring practices are forced to become identical. As such, equal pay laws serve only to remove the penalty for undue sexism in the labor market.
One might point out that wage discrepancies would still exist between men and women in a perfectly free market. True. The discrepancies that arise, however, will be mostly based on statistical analyses and self-selection instead of unjust bigotry. In fact, a U.S. Department of Labor study found that when adjusted for behavioral factors, the pay gap shrunk to between 5 and 7 percent. That gap would likely further shrink when more factors are included. Once you go into the data, real world effects explain much of the gap. For example, women are much more likely than men to drop out of the workforce. This is in large part due to childbirth. As such, employers take on additional risk and cost to hire women. This risk should be reflected in the wage. This concept of statistical price discrimination should not be foreign to most people. Take for example life insurance. The data shows that women live substantially longer than men. Thus, life insurance rates for women are lower than for men. This seems fair to most people, so statistically based wage discrimination should likewise be just.
It is clear that the policy advocated by most feminists is self-defeating. A government mandate of equal pay for equal work serves only to hurt women, not help them. Instead, let free markets do the work. The invisible hand is not sexist.
Jonathan Zhao is a Trinity freshman. His column runs every other Thursday.