Every year, I see articles on news sites about the pay gap. It's an annual sort of thing, where the statistics are released, news sites think, "Oh, that's interesting!" and they post an article on them. And then the next year, the same thing happens, with the statistics barely budging.
That is, it's 2011, and women still still only earn, on average, 80% of what men earn.
80%! you might think. That's pretty good! That's like a B-, which for me wasn't a bad grade! It's still a lot of money! Men and women are just about equal!
Except not so much. Getting $80 for every $100 of what a man earns in the same job sucks. You're losing $20 each time, and over the course of months and years, that adds up pretty quickly. Additionally, that's the average, which means that many women earn much, much less than 80 cents on the dollar.
Well then, you say, there must be a reason for this. You know, women are less assertive on the job than men are, and we all know that a lot of men have to support their wives who are home with kids! It only makes sense that men earn more!
And that means that YOU are part of the problem. YOU are part of the reason that year after year, the gender gap refuses to disappear, and then everyone acts all surprised when the statistics are released. I think this is the fifth year in a row that I've seen the annual statistics, and then the annual surprised at the statistics, and thought, "Well, why would you think it improved, dummy? Nothing changed!"
And part of the reason why nothing changes is that we've created several just-so stories about the wage gap.
A just-so story is basically what it sounds like. People see a phenomenon, and the come up with a story to explain why the phenomenon is happening. Greek myths are just-so stories. My favorite example is that of Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades, and eventually required to live in the underworld for 6 months out of the year. It's a just-so story to explain why the seasons change; Persephone's mother, goddess Demeter of the harvest (and the seasons) is so sad when her daughter leaves that nothing will grow. And then civilization's investigative tools and reasoning improved, and we no longer believe that the story actually explains the seasons.
A lot of bullshitting about the wage gap is a just-so story. Many people who help perpetuate the gap aren't bad people, but people who see the gap and mistakenly assume that the gap is there for a good, reasonable reason. If women are paid less than men, it can't be because of institutional sexism, they think. It has to be because there's something about women that makes it completely appropriate to pay them less.
The first favorite excuse is something along the lines of, "Women aren't assertive enough in the workplace, and if they were, they would all be rolling in dough and the gap would disappear; it's their own fault that they make less." The reason this is my favorite excuse is that it very, very quietly implies that all women who make less than their male counterparts are aware of the fact that they make less. I have no clue how much money male research techs and lab managers are making at my work. It's impolite to ask. Our salaries aren't public information. I'm surviving on my wage all right, and so unless I found out I was making less than a dude, I have no reason (and no real grounds) to ask for a raise.
The second reason this excuse is so effective is that it very explicitly blames women for socialization. While we all would like to believe that we're in no way forever molded by our upbringing, or by all of the people and advertising that come our way, we're all products of socialization. I know that being fat really has nothing to do with my intellect, my ability to keep myself clean, or my actual internal health (and if you think I must be unhealthy because I'm fat, allow me to punch you in the face with my spectacular cardiovascular health--my cholesterol stats make you look like you're about to drop dead any minute). But I also know that in today's American culture, people BELIEVE that I'm a lazy, unhealthy slob who's probably incompetent. That's where the shame and pressure to lose weight come from for so many people. That's why so many men feel as if they have to go out of their way to prove their masculinity. That's why you see so many of your female friends act completely normal until their on a date with a man or with a boyfriend, and they begin to act in a much more exaggerated feminine manner. We've all been trained.
So yes, many women have been trained to just shut up and take whatever salary they're given. But many people are trained to expect that, and therefore have negative opinions of women who don't shut up and just take the salary. Blaming women for their own socialization, or for institutional sexism, is just unacceptable. Do you really think that I'm happy living in a world where I'm considered Other and lesser on a regular basis because I'm female? If sexism didn't exist, or women were in control of it, this wouldn't be a problem.
My second favorite reason to explain the wage gap is actually a significant part of why there is one in the first place. It's the assumption that 1) men are either currently supporting a family, or will be in the future, and that 2) women are probably going to give up their careers someday and stay home with babies, or otherwise be supported by a dude. This sounds pretty obnoxiously 1950s.
This is part of why the wage gap exists. It's the unconscious assumption that, not only will men be better employees because women are too meek/too insecure/too (insert negative attribute typically associated with women here), but that women don't need to make as much as men do. But the world is changing. Many women do support their families. Many women have no intention of getting married, or getting married to a man. Many women don't have plans to have kids, or don't plan to stay home with them.
But what happens is that there's a wage gap, and so in families with one man and one woman, the wage gap increases the likelihood that the man will make more than the woman. If the couple have children, and cannot afford childcare, which parent will probably stop working full-time (or completely)? If the parent who makes less is almost always the mother, we're going to see more stay-at-home mothers than fathers, and then just-so believers will declare that women want to stay home with their kids, mistakenly mixing up the sequence of events. That is, they'll believe that there's a wage gap because more women than men choose to stay at home with kids, whereas in reality, many women have to stay home with their kids because their family cannot afford to give up the father's salary.
The wage gap isn't going to disappear just because people are reminded once a year that it exists. Employers have to actually stop paying women less for doing the same job as men do. They have to stop promoting women less because women might leave and have babies. They have to stop assuming that it's solely women's responsibility to ask for raises and bonuses and promotions. And when the wage gap disappears, who's going to be upset besides people who think women shouldn't work in the first place? Equal pay for equal work is a pretty popular standpoint. Now we just need it to be true.