The Cost of Being Female: Critical Comment on Block
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- Sayers, R.C. J Bus Ethics (2012) 106: 519. doi:10.1007/s10551-011-1017-4
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Women currently earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Explanations abound for why, exactly, this wage gap exists. One of the more potent justifications attributes this pay differential to the unequal effects of marriage on the sexes: the marital asymmetry hypothesis. However, even when marital status is accounted for, a small but significant residual gap remains. This article argues that this is the result of social factors. Entrenched societal sexism causes all of us to harbor unconscious bias about the capabilities and proper gender roles of women. This bias, in turn, leads us to discount work completed by females, especially in professional environments. Employers are not immune from this effect, and the undervaluation of female ability affects hiring practices, leading to the residual wage gap.
KeywordsFeminismDiscriminationPay gapWage differentialsSexismMarital asymmetry
On January 29, 2009, the 44th President of the United States put pen to paper in pursuit of equality, signing his first bill into law. That day, Barack Obama secured the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, a law that seeks to tackle the pervasive and persistent differential between wages earned by males and females in comparable circumstances.1 The passage of the act marked the resurgence of efforts directed at ending pay discrimination and establishing equal pay for equal work. Another development in a long line of reforms, the Lilly Ledbetter Act aimed to help finally and eternally close the wage gap between males and females, a situation that has existed ever since women began working outside of the home and alongside their male counterparts. Over the years, the causes of, the effects of, and the solutions to the pay discrepancy have been vehemently debated. Nevertheless, all efforts at establishing a comprehensive consensus on the topic have come to naught. Despite the past failure at achieving a complete understanding of the income discrepancy, those topics are still of critical importance, particularly as the United States government enacts enduring public policies to remedy perceived societal ills in pursuit of equality and justice for all.
The state of the wage gap continues to intrigue and perplex scholars. Of great significance is the fact that this divergence, despite gradually and consistently narrowing over time, remains staggeringly large. In 2010, it was estimated that women on average earned only 77 cents for each dollar earned by men, and this difference is further exacerbated for women of color (Bennett and Ellison 2010; Ludden 2010).2 In addition, the rate at which the difference in salary is shrinking is remarkably sluggish, decreasing at a rate far slower than anticipated by the first advocates of women’s rights: “Since the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, women’s wages have risen less than a half-penny per year, from 59 cents then to 77 cents now” (Bennett and Ellison 2010). Furthermore, the income divergence is not a phenomenon observable only at the aggregate level; on the contrary, it is noted throughout virtually every sector of the economy, and pay inequality is found in virtually every grouping of job (Carman 2007). All of the varying characteristics lead analysts to question what, exactly, are the root causes of the wage gap, for without this information no proper solution—or, perhaps, lack thereof—can be justified.
In order to help aid this discussion, this article will review the marital asymmetry hypothesis and its opposition. In “The Marital Asymmetry Hypothesis” section of this article, we consider the explanation of the wage gap provided by the marital asymmetry hypothesis. “A Critique of the Marital Asymmetry Hypothesis” section is devoted to a critique of this perspective. We conclude in “Conclusion” section.
The Marital Asymmetry Hypothesis
Explanations for the wage differential between the sexes can be largely divided into two camps: those who contend that income disparity is the result of discrimination on the basis of sex and those who maintain that other causes are at work. Analysts who adopt the former position argue that the discrepancy is an unmerited and unreasonable result of pervasive, persistent, and entrenched systemic sexism. Those who deny a significant role for discrimination, in contrast, point to other factors. Within this faction are numerous noted economists, most with a pronounced faith in the free market, who theorize that the wage gap, rather than persisting as an indicator of deep-seated misogyny on the societal level, reflects an inherent discrepancy in productivity between the sexes.3 Although many economists promote this interpretation, Dr. Walter Block, has both an extensive paper trail4 and a long history of speaking vociferously on this economic analysis of discrimination. He is thus highly conspicuous in the population of scholars vehement in attributing the pay gap to productivity differentials. As such, this article will present Block’s explanation of this occurrence alongside criticism and evaluation of his conclusions, in order to further our understanding of the possible and probable causes of any existing differential in income between the two sexes.
When Block looks at the pay gap between the sexes, he sees something entirely different to the discrimination that feminists (and even many individuals who shy away from the label “feminist”) so fervently rally against. This author, in fact, denies the existence of any wage gap at all, dismissing the claim as feminist nonsense (Ragan and Block 2003). Not to be misinterpreted, Block concedes that a discrepancy once existed; this, he articulates, was the result of the previous reliance of productivity upon sheer physical strength (Ragan and Block 2003). Historically, the majority of jobs heavily utilized physical labor; not surprisingly, then, an individual’s productivity, or ratio of outputs to inputs, correlated strongly with his or her physical strength. As male brute vigor, on average, exceeds that of females, the productivity of males and, thus, their wage rate was higher.5 This past difference in salary, however, should not be attributed to deliberate discrimination by a patriarchal society against women; instead, the historic gap is, according to Block, the organic and reasonable result of a specific composition of employment in a society where physical strength is, for whatever reason, incontrovertibly sexually dimorphic.
Unlike wage rates in past times, however, productivity and wages in modern American society are rarely dependent upon physical strength. As such, we should expect to see patterns of wage distribution be more equal across the sex divide. How, then, is Block able to reconcile his denial of an extant wage gap with the irrefutable empirical evidence that women earn not just less than their male counterparts, but significantly less? How is he able to, at least on a superficially plausible basis, suggest that women earn equal pay for equal work when the numbers tell an entirely different story?
Block explains away the concept of an unfair dissimilarity in wage by employing the marital asymmetry hypothesis, a premise widely adopted by apologists of the wage differential. He does not deny the fact that there is a wage differential between the sexes; he claims, however, that it is not evidence of intentional discrimination resulting from entrenched societal sexism. Instead, Block argues, any difference in income between the sexes is the direct result of how marriage affects males and females. Marriage, Block emphasizes, has a dissimilar impact on the home and personal lives of men and women; not surprisingly, then, the result would be that these inequalities have extensive repercussions, manifesting themselves in the work place (Block 1992, p. 246). Matrimony, Block illustrates, has a highly asymmetric effect on the sexes. Once wed, it is women who, on average, adopt the majority of duties associated with the institution of marriage; it is typical that the wife is the spouse in heterosexual marriages to assume the responsibilities of child care and of other domestic chores, such as cleaning, cooking, and shopping. It is expected, then, that a woman’s workload in the home will increase, often momentously, as a result of marriage.
This asymmetric division of labor in the home is of critical importance to comprehending wage differentials, as those individuals who increase duties, responsibilities, and workloads in the home will inevitably be less productive within the office, resulting in lower wages. The effect of marital asymmetry upon the wage differential is only further compounded by the fact that, upon marriage, men actually cede duties to their new spouses. That is, rather than producing only asymmetrical consequences based upon sex, “marriage has opposite effects on the quality of inputs into a career, freeing the man’s time and absorbing the woman’s” (Block and Williams 1981, p. 385). The result, then, is greatly different levels of productivity and performance in terms of quality by males and females who have ever entered a marital relationship. It is only reasonable that such qualitative discrepancies are reflected in wage, an indicator of the value an individual adds to a company in terms of productivity. The marital asymmetry hypothesis, in addition to signifying the inequitable division of labor in the home, takes into account the unequal value granted to husbands’ career goals and aspirations over those of wives. Block notes that “female subordination of individual career goals to that of the husband’s career” is all too frequent, especially in terms of relocation for the husband’s benefit and the wife’s detriment (Block and Williams 1981, p. 385).
In addition to accounting for the asymmetric distribution of marital duties and for the incongruous weight attributed to male spouses’ career goals, the asymmetric marital hypothesis also accounts for further wage discrepancy between the sexes. As women are the sex blessed—or cursed, as the case may be—with the burden of bearing children, they are more likely than men to remove themselves from the work force once married. Some women depart from their jobs only for a 6 week maternity leave; however, a vast number of women take themselves away from work outside of their homes for far longer periods of time. This departure from the labor force—characteristic far more of the female sex than of males—means that women often lack the time necessary to accumulate pay raises and promotions and to garner the experience necessary to increase one’s productivity and hence wage. As a result, women, hindered by a disproportionately low attachment to the workforce, earn significantly less than do men, who are less likely to remove themselves from the labor force in favor of household work (Block 1992, p. 246). Combined with the other asymmetric effects of marriage, this factor accounts for the supposed wage gap between the sexes, asserts Block. While it is evident that not every individual has been involved in marital relations, enough people have been affected by the asymmetric effects of marriage that the aggregate reflects a conspicuous wage differential. Enough women, their productivity and wages dragged down by the inequities of marriage, and enough men, their productivity and wages boosted by these very phenomena, have been married such that the average wages of males and females reflect an obvious and severe divergence. This is a discrepancy that, according to Block, reflects differences in productivity rather than societal sexism or discrimination by the employer.
A Critique of the Marital Asymmetry Hypothesis
This explanation of the wage gap appears, at first sight, to present a logical and accurate argument against attributing the immense extant wage differential to sexual discrimination and societal sexism. Nevertheless, a closer analysis of Block’s assessment reveals flaws that severely undermine his confident claim that the discrepancy is, in no part, the result of discrimination on the basis of sex; the devil, as they say, is in the details. It is integral to understand that, were marital asymmetry responsible for the entirety of the pay gap, two statistical results would be noted. The first would be that in comparisons of wage on the aggregate no wage differential would be evident once analysis controlled for marriage, occupation, education, and other significant variables. The second statistical result would be that no wage differential between those individuals who have never been married would exist. The reality of the statistics is that neither of these two phenomena are observed; empirically, Block’s claims are thus flawed. Numerous statistical analyses find that, even when controlling for a host of influential variables including marital status, “economists still find an unexplained gender gap of anywhere from around a nickel to a dime or more on the dollar” (Ludden 2010).
Perhaps more telling, however, remains the fact that when comparing males and females who have never been married a gap is still evident. Women trail behind their male counterparts in terms of wage immediately upon graduating from institutions of higher learning; such wage discrepancy is significant, as this grouping of individuals is composed almost entirely of males and females who have never married.6 If the marital asymmetry hypothesis is to explain the entirety of the wage gap, any wage differential immediately upon graduation would be either non-existent or extremely low; this is simply not the case. For instance, in her first job out of graduate school, a female MBA graduating from a top-tier school will earn $4,600 less than her male counterparts (Stark 2010). Furthermore, in 2007 women earned only 80% of what men made one year after graduating from college (Clark-Flory 2007).
In contrast, Block asserts that when never-married males are compared to never-married females the difference in income shrinks to “virtually zero” (Block 1992, p. 246). Nevertheless, he places faith in 1989 research that posited the earnings of never-married women at only 93.4 percent of the wages earned by never-married men (Block 1989).7 While this wage differential may be immaterial to Block, the dissimilarity in income between never-married members of the opposite sexes evident in this research is neither statistically irrelevant nor personally insignificant to the women who suffer the costs. As Block’s critic Arthur Drache shrewdly ponders, “How many men would be prepared to work for 93.4 percent of what their peers earn?” (Drache 1989).8
The truth of the matter is that the unequal effects of marriage pinpointed in the marital asymmetry hypothesis are, in large part, responsible for the sex wage gap. Block is entirely correct in attributing much of the wage differential to the asymmetric detriment of marriage to women, as opposed to the benefit of marriage conferred upon men.9 The difference between the effects of marriage on men and on women does account for the majority of the pay gap. Despite this fact, there remains a significant portion of this divergence that cannot be accounted for by controlling for marriage and/or by comparing never-married individuals; in addition, although this wage differential is small in comparison to the overall wage gap, it remains of great import. It is likely that this residual difference is, in fact, caused by deeply embedded societal sexism and by society’s propensity to discriminate—even inadvertently and unconsciously—on the basis of sex.
Much evidence suggests that these biases are the result of deeply entrenched stereotypes and societal prejudice against women that cause individuals to discount female competency in the workplace. Numerous research studies indicate that these biases cause human beings to unintentionally and unconsciously exercise sexual discrimination. An experiment conducted by Christine Alksnis and Serge Desmarais indicates that human beings—both male and female—predictably undervalue the work of females in relation to that of males and discount the worth of professions that employ proportionally more women than men (Vedantam 2010). This effect, it seems, is for no perceivable reason other than the influence of unconscious bias against the female sex in favor of the male sex (Vedantam 2010). Experiments, for instance, indicate that both men and women consistently rate men higher than women when asked about customer satisfaction, even when their performance is identical (Bakalar 2009).10 Research completed in 2000 also revealed such bias. When musicians auditioned to be a part of symphony orchestras behind a closed curtain, women were 50 percent more likely to be chosen than when the judges could observe the candidate (Weiner 2010).11
The question that remains is how the free market processes in which Block places his faith allow a residual wage gap to exist. It is intuitive that an individual being paid less than he or she contributes to the company is an unsustainable situation. If a company is reaping profit on an individual female worker, a competing firm will offer the employee a higher wage, attracting her from her poorly paid job. If the new wage is still lower than the employee’s marginal revenue product, another competing firm will see an opportunity for profit, offering a wage that is even higher still. This process will continue until this individual’s wage equals her contribution—that is, until there is no longer a profit opportunity for competitors to exploit. Due to this organic market process, each individual’s wage will equal his or her productivity, or will doggedly approach such equilibrium. How, then, can the wages of half the human population escape this mechanism? Surely, any profit-conscious employer that knows of this income gap will take advantage of this opportunity, and the wages of females would be pushed up so as to equal productivity. However, there is a reason, overlooked by Block, that this does not occur. It is because wage will always equal productivity only in a market with perfect competition, including perfect information.
Unfortunately, in the markets in which we observe a wage gap, neither of these characteristics is present. That is, because markets are imperfect, market conditions preclude economic mechanisms from functioning perfectly; the competition over employees that would, under proper conditions, eliminate wage discrimination is unable to work flawlessly. This gives rise to the residual, otherwise inexplicable pay discrepancy that is observed in the United States. Most important in this analysis is the understanding that the knowledge with which employers are operating is imperfect; in fact, knowledge is costly. Because employers do not have perfect information and because amassing more knowledge would be costly, they must make decisions about hiring based solely on limited information. An employer does not know how productive a prospective employee will be upon hiring; not surprisingly, he must rely on his predictions about how productive the individual will likely be. An employer, then, sets wages and competes for underpaid employees based not upon actual productivity but merely on the basis of perceived productivity. This perception is an assumption that is subject to error, miscalculation, uncertainty and bias; it is a conjecture that is subject to human fallibility in all its unadulterated glory. In a patriarchal society in which sexism is deeply embedded, the way an employer perceives the prospective productivity of a female and male worker is radically different, and this discrepancy is not necessarily a result of conscious discrimination. In fact, due to the social influences on Americans, individuals—male and female—have both conscious and subconscious preconceived notions and biases regarding the two sexes and gender roles. When a culture repeatedly emphasizes the inferiority of one sex, especially in the workplace, this message is bound to affect the way members within it view the abilities and capabilities of the denigrated group. If an employer views, even subconsciously, the entirety of the female sex as inferior in an office environment, it is likely that he or she will undervalue the productive potential of females applying for a job or seeking a promotion. Therefore, competing employers will be less likely to bid up the wages of underpaid women, as Block suggests. This behavior leaves the female wage rate to languish below the level of their productivity, which is, barring marital inequality, equal to their male counterparts. Studies show that unconscious bias leads individuals to consistently and significantly undervalue female labor (Vedantam 2010). Why, then, are we to support the notion that employers would alone be immune from the same social forces that affect all other human beings?
Those who advocate the marital asymmetry hypothesis as the sole factor in creating a wage gap between the sexes are likely to dismiss such social explanations as nothing more than feminist vitriol and propaganda. Ironically, however, the marital asymmetry hypothesis actually exemplifies the covert sexism of society. As Block asserts, women in the United States do indeed perform most household duties. We must delve deeper, however, and ask why this is the case. Are women biologically better suited to cook than men? Do women have an intrinsic capability to clean to a greater degree than men? Are women inherently superior at caring for children than men? The answer to all three of these questions is of course a resounding “No.” Women tend to shoulder the burden of most household duties not because they are inherently better at performing them but because that is the way in which society is structured. In essence, our mores embody deeply imbedded sexist leanings and heavily entrenched notions of suitable gender roles. We believe women should do most of the work in the home, just as we maintain women are inherently less productive in the office. We do not, and cannot, magically separate ourselves from these biases and stereotypes when we begin to compete for workers. As such, the female wage rate reflects the societal undervaluation of women that biases corporate hiring practices.
As equality between the sexes increases and society begins to shy away from its patriarchal structure, we observe that the wage gap not accounted for by marital asymmetry has decreased. Nevertheless, a significant residual gap is extant, indicating (rather than overt, intentional, and conspiratorial discrimination) societal sexism that is deeply entrenched, ubiquitous, and persistent. This pay discrepancy may be a phenomenon that Dr. Walter Block wishes to ignore, but those of us—feminists and non-feminists alike—who recognize a more profound societal defect refuse to do so.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 attempts to lessen the extant sex-based wage differential by amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The amendment establishes a new statute of limitations for filing lawsuits regarding pay discrimination, insuring that the 180-day time period to file litigation is reset upon each receipt of an inequitable paycheck. As such, the law served as a response to the 2007 United States Supreme Court holding in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co (http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/05-1074.ZO.html). This case declared it illegal for employees to sue employers, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, over race or gender pay discrimination based on decisions made by the employer 180 days ago or more. The Lilly Ledbetter Act liberalizes this statute of limitations, effectively making it simpler to pursue reparations for pay discrimination, particularly in cases where the plaintiff is, for long periods of time, unaware of any pay discrepancy as a result of gender discrimination (Grossman 2009).
In 2006, black women earned 63.6 cents for each dollar earned by all men. For Hispanic women, this amount was a much lower 51.7 cents (The Wage Gap, by Gender and Race 2007).
Note that this statement is not to suggest that males are always and categorically physically stronger than women. While some females are, indubitably, physically stronger than some men, it remains that on average men are physically stronger than are women.
Although there are a small number of married individuals in this sample, the number is low enough that the effect is essentially neutralized.
Block does present numbers that indicate that single women with a university degree earn 109.8% more than do men. These data, however, seem questionable. The average income of women is listed as $7,720, with the average income of men equaling $8,855. If women’s earnings are taken as a percentage of men’s, the result is 87.18%. The 109.8% reported by Block is only found if the average income of women is adjusted to be $9,720. Evidently, a human error has occurred in the process of running these numbers. In 1982, the data spread lists women’s wage to be 91.3% of men’s (derived from an average income of $24,349 for women and $26,679 for men). Unless 1971 was a year that, for no known reason, deviated in extreme form from all other years on account, it seems likely that the discrepancy in the 1971 data is a result of an error when calculating the percentage, rather than an incorrect number for the average wage. (Block 1989).
Recently, Census data also revealed that young, childless women in urban areas earn an average of 108% more than their male counterparts (Clark-Flory 2010; Dougherty 2010). Although the news media rejoiced over the news, it is important to realize that these data are rather misleading. Firstly, they do not compare incomes within industries or control for education levels. Women are 1.5 times more likely than men to go to college, and as such earn more, on average, than men (Clark-Flory 2010). If education levels were controlled for and women were compared with men in similar jobs, the significant residual pay gap discussed above would still remain.
Interestingly, the marital asymmetry hypothesis has been supported by studies which seek to answer whether the oft-noted relation between marriage and high wage for men (frequently referred to as the marital wage premium) is causal or simply correlational. By looking at the effect of marital status upon wage in monozygotic twin pairs, researchers were able to convincingly indicate that the marital wage premium for men is likely causal in relation (Varian 2004).
In the study, subjects were shown three video clips of an employee-customer interaction. The videos, including the script, were identical, except for the employee. In the highest rated video, the worker was a white male; in the lowest rated videos, the sales clerk was, alternatively, a white woman or a black man (Bakalar 2009).
The author of this article would like to extend great thanks, perhaps paradoxically, to Walter Block for inspiring her to write this article; the first draft was written for this professor’s class in labor economics. She also thanks Block and fellow classmate Allison Derrick for editorial assistance. She is solely responsible for the substantive research and analysis in this article.