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Article Highlights

  • The 23-cent wage gap does not take into account the factors that justify different pay.

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  • American women today are as independent-minded and self-determining as any in history.

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  • Perhaps, if we stop indoctrinating college women with the myth that the workplace is rigged against them, more will try.

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared in The New York Times' Room for Debate in response to the question: As more women become the primary breadwinners, why does income disparity still exist? And what can be done about it?

A serious dialogue about parity in the workplace can begin only when we liberate ourselves from the widely propagated but utterly false assertion that “for the same work, women receive 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.” The 23-cent wage gap does not take into account the factors that justify different pay, like occupation, education, tenure on the job, and hours worked per week.

"It is condescending to suggest that (women) have been manipulated when they choose home and family over high-octane careers—or to pursue degrees in education rather than engineering."  -- Christina Hoff Sommers

Unfortunately, some activist groups cling to the wage gap, insisting that women earn less than men even after controlling for the relevant variables. For example, the AAUW’s "Graduating to a Pay Gap" report classifies "social science" as one college major and reports that, among such majors, women earn only 83 percent of what men earn. Horrifying—until you notice that "social science" includes both “economics” and “sociology.” Economics majors (66 percent male) have a median income of $70,000; for sociology majors (68 percent female) it is $45,000.

When women’s groups acknowledge that pay disparities are largely explained by women’s choices, they then insist that those choices are not truly free. “Women’s personal choices are… fraught with inequities,” says the AAUW: women are “pigeonholed” into “pink-collar” jobs in health and education. But American women today are as independent-minded and self-determining as any in history. It is condescending to suggest that they have been manipulated when they choose home and family over high-octane careers—or to pursue degrees in education rather than engineering.

It is certainly the case that career-minded women, precisely because they so often embrace greater domestic responsibilities, face distinct challenges. We should, however, be wary of claims that European-style policies—extended and fully paid maternity and paternity leave, subsidized day care, flexible work schedules, and the like—will result in workplace parity. Europe’s comprehensive family-friendly polices do bring more women into the workforce—but they tend to work part-time and remain in low-level positions. American women are more likely to work full-time and to achieve high-level jobs as managers or professionals.

Talented young women who aspire to be rich and powerful would be advised to major in economics or electrical engineering rather than psychology or social work. They should be prepared to work 60 hours a week at the office rather than combining shorter hours with home, family, and other pursuits they find fulfilling. Those who stick with this course will find that their W-2s are equal to those of their male counterparts.

Perhaps, if we stop indoctrinating college women with the myth that the workplace is rigged against them, more will try.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Her new book "Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History—and Why it Matters Today" will be published in June.

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