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Columnist Sophia Cabana argues that one reason for the gender pay gap is that women are more likely to take a job such as a teacher, which naturally pays less than a job in international business, which men are more likely to enter.

There’s a well known statistic that says women make 77 cents for every dollar men earn in the United States. This statistic is frequently used to argue that women are paid less than men for the same work, but the problem with this statistic is that it offers an oversimplified perspective on gender inequality in American society. 

It’s important to acknowledge how difficult it is to get clear statistics regarding the wage gap, and the often-cited 77 cents per dollar isn’t a particularly accurate estimate. This year, PayScale concluded that the average woman made 79 cents for each dollar earned by a man in 2018. In March this year, the Pew Research Center estimated that women had earned 85 cents for each dollar earned by a man in 2018, with that 15 cent gap narrowing to an 11 cent gap for women aged 25 to 34. This is still a significant gap, but it’s not as disheartening as the 77 cents per dollar estimate.  

One must also note that the estimates previously mentioned don’t take into account the professions of the men and women being counted. Rather, they compare the average man and average woman without considering their professions. 

Payscale also estimates that women earn 98 cents per dollar compared to men with the same job and qualifications. The gap in professional success between men and women isn’t merely due to men climbing the corporate ladder more rapidly than women in similar lines of work. It’s also due to individual choices regarding their programs of study and professional goals. Women are more likely to go into social work or education than aerospace engineering or international business, and the opposite can be said of men. 

There’s nothing innately wrong with this. These lower-paid professions are honorable jobs which serve an important function, but they aren’t lucrative. People going into these fields of work often know this, but choose to pursue such careers anyways because it’s what they want to do with their lives. If women are choosing lower-paying careers because they’d rather feel passionate about their line of work or have a job with a more flexible and less intense schedule, then that isn’t necessarily a problem, and recent statistics indicate that women can expect to make roughly the same amount as men who made the same choices as them. 

The two-cent-per-dollar gender pay gap among people in the same profession can be explained by relatively small choices men and women make at work. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average woman working full time works 7.93 hours per day, and the average man working full time works 8.23 hours per day. There was also a study from Harvard University in 2018, which showed that, among male and female public transportation workers, the individual choices of employees regarding overtime hours and other indicators regarding availability affected their pay in a way that led to women making slightly less than men on average. 

If women and men working the same job can expect to make roughly the same amount, and if discrepancies in pay are related to discrepancies in the number of hours worked — amounting to a difference of only two cents per dollar on average — then the question still remains why the overall wage gap is so much larger than this, and why women work lower-paying jobs than men.

Women make many choices as they try to navigate the complexities of their lives. Our role as a society is simply to ensure they have the ability to make these choices freely. If women are actively being pushed by the cultural forces around them to limit their own potential, then that is certainly a problem. If qualified young women feel excluded or ridiculed by peers for having aspirations which are traditionally masculine, like being a CEO, a scientist or a lawyer, then that is certainly an issue. Yet if a woman genuinely wishes to pursue a career which isn’t financially lucrative or male-dominated, it should not be assumed that she is simply doing so because she feels too oppressed to pursue any other path. Odds are, she’s a kindergarten teacher because she wants to be. 

While getting equal pay for equal work is important, and calling attention to instances of blatant sexism in the workplace is a just action to take, it’s also important to remember that an individual’s priorities and choices in life will lead to different outcomes and that the raw statistics regarding the pay gap may not actually be indicators of sexism in the workplace. 

The money people earn is but one of many interconnected factors which make them successful in life, so taking these numbers out of context and assuming that they’re tied to injustice and discontent on a very personal level isn’t a wise course of action. Ensuring women have the same opportunities as men is more important than ensuring they have the same exact lifestyle, pay and professional advancement as men.

Sophia Cabana is a senior history and independent scholars double-major. Contact Sophia at cabanasl@dukes.jmu.edu.