Devaluing and revaluing women’s work

Women’s average pay is less than men’s. One reason for this is that the average pay in jobs dominated by women is less than that in jobs dominated by men. (The other reason is that, within a given job, men earn more than women, which is when women can actually claim wage discrimination – but that’s another story.)

So why do female-dominated jobs pay less? A new analysis of Census data from 1950 to 2000 by Asaf Levanon, Paula England and Paul Allison in Social Forces, gives us perhaps the best test yet of two different explanations:

  • Queuing: Women enter jobs that already pay less, either because employers hire them last (in the “labor queue”) or because the things women value in a job are “non-pecuniary” (such as career intermittence, or a love of cleaning).
  • Devaluation: The pay in jobs that women hold is lower because women hold them. “Women’s work” is valued less either because there is a cultural bias resulting from women’s lower social status, because it’s similar to unpaid work that many women do for “free” (like childcare), or because women are politically weaker and employers take advantage of it.

By tracking jobs across six waves of the Census, the authors can use analysis of change in the pay and gender composition of jobs to answer which came first, the women or the lower pay.

The answer (mostly): Women came first. It’s devaluation, not queuing. (This is the wagon to which Matt Huffman and I, apparently wisely, hitched our previous work.) This is especially true in the later decades.

One thing devaluation does is create a struggle to define jobs as not women’s work. A nice new analysis of that struggle, by Rachel Sherman, appears in Work & Occupations. She shows the creative ways that “personal concierges” — most of whom are women — try to sell their services without revealing that they are essentially trying to get paid for doing women’s work (to oversimplify the story).

Note this doesn’t mean devaluation is why women get paid less overall. This can also happen for other reasons, including wage discrimination within jobs. But the conclusion is important, because devaluation is much harder to sue for under current law, which requires individual acts of discrimination either in hiring (the labor queue) or wage setting (within-job pay) – both of which are hard to document.

Because it’s not about individual discrimination, policy-wise, the devaluation thesis brings us back to “comparable worth” — the legal regulation of job pay based on the qualifications and requirements of the job — which I rather weakly advocated when the Democratic majority held hearings on gender inequity way back in 2007. (Contrary to Obama’s assertions, this would be the real equal-pay-for-equal-work). Comparable worth requires government intervention in wage setting, making it the bogeyman of anti-discrimination policy.

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