By Sutherland Institute
Published on September, 28 2018

“There is evidence that suggests we could close most of the pay gap through the free market – if our public policies helped working women maintain attachment to the workforce when they have children,” said Sutherland Institute Vice President of Policy Derek Monson Wednesday during a panel.

Monson joined Dr. Susan Madsen and Michelle Quist in a panel on pay equity, hosted by the Utah Minority Bar Association.

The following outlines Monson’s remarks as prepared:

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What is the pay gap?

  • Often, the pay gap between men and women is put forward as a measure of discrimination against women. Discrimination against women is a real and terrible thing, so this is understandable. But it is also inaccurate. The pay gap simply compares how much women earn compared to men, nothing more and nothing less. Discrimination is one part, but not all, of that gap. This matters because if we act on a false belief that pay discrimination against women exists as long as there’s a pay gap, we can end up addressing it in ways that are more harmful than helpful to women in the workplace. It is important we understand what we are seeing and talking about so that it helps us find the right policy solutions.
  • It also matters because it is possible that an inaccurate framing of something as being about discrimination against women, if frequently repeated, can cause issue fatigue that reduces our ability to address discrimination. For instance, in a conversation with a female co-worker a few days ago about the frequency of someone in a position of influence being accused of sexual assault, she said that the constant repetition of sexual assault allegations in the news and in politics has led her to tune out new accusations of sexual assault. I think people, as a matter of human psychology, tend to respond less to something that they hear repeated over and over again. That places a responsibility on us – out of consideration for those forced to experience discrimination – to accurately and judiciously characterize things potentially connected to discrimination. If we get too fast and loose with how we use that kind of language, it can lose its power to motivate people to find solutions. And that would be unfortunate.

What causes the pay gap?

  • The causes of the pay gap are multiple, and it is hard to tease out which one is the most impactful. But there is evidence-based research showing that among the factors driving the pay gap are: a woman’s detachment from the workforce after having a child, gender-based wage discrimination, and the career choices of women.

What should we do about the pay gap?

  • There is evidence that suggests we could close most of the pay gap through the free market – if our public policies helped working women maintain attachment to the workforce when they have children. For instance, an evaluation of a paid maternity leave program in California suggested that it increased a mother’s weekly work hours and wage income by 10-17 percent – three years AFTER that child was born. If this effect was replicated nationally and didn’t affect men’s earnings, that would have closed the wage gap from 82 percent to 95 percent in 2017.
  • There are good paid family leave proposals out there that could help address the pay gap without harming women (and men, for that matter) in other ways. For instance, there’s a proposal by Senator Marco Rubio from Florida to allow families to finance family leave after having a child by getting an advance on their future Social Security benefits in exchange for a delay in when they could begin receiving Social Security benefits.
  • It is important to approach such potential policy solutions carefully, however. For instance, if our efforts to address the pay gap boil down to mandates on businesses that increase the cost of employing women, or new taxes that decrease future job growth, we may end up harming women in our attempts to help them. And that would be both unfortunate and unnecessary.

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