I usually enjoy reading comments to my columns, and my column from last week was no exception. I picked up several comments to the list of reasons I spelled out that are commonly given for why women are paid less than men. One of the reasons I gave was the argument commonly made that women may get paid less than men because they tend to have less education than men of similar background. This argument was only one reason in the list I gave, but was the one argument that drew comments. Indeed, it seems as if the conversation continued all week in this publication, as I was surprised to see than some of the thoughts shared by readers were, coincidentally, highlighted by other articles in Inside Higher Education over the past week.
Those that commented rightly pointed out that women are not, in fact, less educated than men. Indeed, in the U.S. today, they tend to have more education than men, with women making up the majority of undergraduate students in the U.S. and earning the majority of degrees. Surprisingly, although women are now better educated, they still earn less than men. This is not a phenomena confined to the West, but is one that is seen worldwide, as reported in a column earlier this week. Attendees at a conference in Hong Kong note that women have gained strides in education, but that has not brought them to positions of power in education and industry throughout the world. Having grown up hearing that education is the path to access to better jobs, this leaves me wondering what went wrong here.
A comment by a reader is reflected in yet another column from this past week. That reader suggested that it might be that women get paid less than men because we are not as good at negotiating as men are. A list of approaches for successfully negotiating in the academic job market are given in another article, showing up later that week almost as if it had been written in response to that reader’s comments. I admit that I cringed when I read some of the suggestions. I definitely did not follow these rules closely when I applied for my first job over twenty years ago, and I really could have used some of these suggestions in my job hunt.
This article made me think about the negotiating process and how it relates to our jobs as mothers, jobs that often involve negotiations, if only with people a fraction of our size. My husband and I sometimes joke that our daughter is going to grow up to be a union negotiator, since she is so good at proposing alternatives when things are not going her way. You would think that women who are mothers, who might be more experienced in negotiating with (small) people, would therefore have higher salaries. This, again, is not the case, as being a mother actually leads to even lower wages when compared to those of women who are not mothers.
So, readers, what is going on here? Why has education not paid off for women the way we expected it to? And why are mothers (who one would guess are good at negotiating) paid less than non-mothers? After reading your comments last week, I would be interested in hearing what people outside of the Labor Economics text books have to say about these issues.