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How not to close the gender pay gap

Fight the good fight, sisters.
Fight the good fight, sisters.
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Last week, the Census Bureau reported figures showing that the gender wage gap is now 22 cents, not the 23 that we thought last year. The left-leaning Center for American Progress responded with a list of seven ways to reduce the gender wage gap. A quick rundown:

  1. Raise the minimum wage
  2. Raise the tipped minimum wage
  3. Support fair scheduling practices
  4. Support pay transparency
  5. Invest in affordable, high-quality childcare and early-child education
  6. Pass paid sick days legislation
  7. Pass a national paid family and medical leave insurance program

These will all likely help shrink the wage gap, but with the exception of pay transparency, these aren't exactly wage gap issues. What CAP has done is put out a set of proposals that largely help low-wage workers, paired it with the observation that women are disproportionately likely to work low-wage jobs, and called it a gender equity agenda.

What they haven't done is anything to address the ways in which women are systematically disadvantaged all up and down the job ladder. (As my colleague Matt Yglesias wrote, Hillary Clinton has similarly adopted feminist rhetoric in pushing for better policies for lower-wage workers.)

It's true that raising the minimum wage would shrink the wage gap to some degree. But while we try to boost women's pay, we also should ask ourselves why women make up nearly two-thirds of people working at or below the minimum wage in the first place.

The point here isn't to rip apart one proposal from one think tank. Rather, it's to emphasize that to make meaningful progress on it, we need to step back and think about how we think about the gender wage gap. If all of those seven goals above were accomplished, the wage gap would still be there, and would probably still be gaping. The jobs women end up working, the majors they pick in college, the fact that they are saddled with most childrearing responsibilities — these are the real causes.

The truth is that the wage gap isn't even the real problem. The wage gap is itself an economic symptom of a larger problem of how and why we value women in our society. Closing the wage gap is not going to be a function of treating the symptoms, then; it's going to have to eventually be about treating the cause — a society where women are undervalued professionally and (relatedly) expected to be primary caregivers for children.

As with the minimum wage example above, really solving the gender wage gap is going to be a matter of asking the right questions — ones that apply to women across a broader spectrum. So in considering why women suffer a huge penalty for taking time off after having kids, it may be time to ask not just whether or not they can find sufficient childcare but why men just don't seem to have this problem. And instead of asking why women are taking lower-paying jobs than men, the question is why women, who clearly are getting more educated than men right now, are still staying out of math classes.

None of this, of course, is something that Congress (particularly one that's 80 percent men) will change (let alone a think tank). The bigger answers will have to come from schools and businesses — incentivizing girls to study computer science, encouraging paternity leave, and rethinking the very types of hours and positions that firms offer, as Claudia Goldin has proposed.

Even if you were to simply undertake some sort of policy to give women more money — whether it's the minimum wage or giving them lower tax rates or even just sending them a check every year to make up for their 22-percent wage deficit — it wouldn't really solve the central problem, which is a fundamental undervaluing of women. Women do need to be paid more, of course. But the money isn't really the point with the gender wage gap. Value is.

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