A recent WSJ article by Kay Hymowitz (Why Women Make less than Men, April 26, 2012 ) reports that “most people have heard that full-time working American women earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Yet these numbers don’t take into account the actual number of hours worked. And it turns out that women work fewer hours than men.” Hymowitz continues, citing Labor Department statistics indicating more than half (almost 55%) of workers who work more than 35 hours per week (what the department defines as full time work) are men and suggests that the sex wage gap is “to a considerable degree a gender-hours gap.”
The one-line summary of her article reads: “In studies from the U.S. to Sweden, pay discrimination can’t explain the disparity. Women earn less because they work fewer hours” implies that the work hours difference between women and men is the root cause of the gap.
The data indicate clearly that women work, on average, fewer hours than men and that a primary reason they do so is because they cut back hours to have and raise children. But the contention that the work hours disparity between women and men is the only driving force behind the pay gap – and that discrimination has little to do with it – is a tough sell to those of us familiar with the research.
Sociologists have shown that net of work hours, a sex pay gap exists. What is more, the gap is largest when we compare mothers to childless women and men with and without children and women and men in occupations dominated by women. In short, a large body of evidence suggests a sex pay gap exists because women’s work is less rewarded than men’s, even when they may be working in the same or very similar jobs (e.g., as full-time lawyers in private practice see, Dinovitzer, Reichman, and Sterling (2009) “The Differential Valuation of Women’s Work: A New Look at the Gender Gap in Lawyers’ Incomes.” Social Forces).
The sex pay gap persists even when you compare comparable women and men who work in non-standard work arrangements (e.g. of the roughly 9,000 women and men engineers and scientists who worked in a non-standard work arrangement in their sample of just over 48,000, women were over-represented in the “worst” arrangements), but even this could not explain the sex gap in pay (see Prokos, Padavic, Schmidt (2009) “Non Standard Work Arrangements among Women Scientists and Engineers” Sex Roles).
Clearly, something beyond a “gender-hours gap” is responsible for the difference in pay between women and men, especially the gap between women with children and others. Sociologists of work know this; now it’s time for us to dispel the work hours myth and address the discrimination behind the gap.