Morris: The Gender Pay Gap in Perspective

April 23, 2018

by Leo Morris

I come to some of the hot-topic debates of the day a little late because I get all caught up in the search for context. By the time I escape from the labyrinth of historical research and peripheral analyses, the zeitgeist has moved on, and nobody wants to talk about the issue any longer.

Consider the “gender pay gap,” shorthand for the fact that when we compare the median wages for full-time workers, women earn only 80 cents for every $1 earned by men. “Equal pay day” – signifying how far into the year women have to work to earn the same pay men did the year before – was way back on April 10. So here I am finally, a day late and 20 cents short.

The situation is simply intolerable, the critics say, and immediate government relief is required. And it is even worse here in Indiana, where women make only 74 cents on the dollar. But nothing at all will be done, explains Suzette Hackney of the Indianapolis Star. “Indiana’s General Assembly refuses to take up the topic, though the issue has been brought to every legislative session for the past 20 years.” Indiana is “sending an ugly message” that women “don’t deserve to make as much money . . .”

That seems rather simple-minded, a simple number used to convince us that there is a simple solution to a complex situation. Perhaps we should consider some evidence from the other side.

The whole “median wage” thing – half the workers making more, half less – is highly misleading. It conceals myriad factors contributing to pay, such as the professions men and women tend to choose, the number of hours worked, who moves in and out of the workforce for childcare issues and who does not. To get a true picture, we would need to consider men and women who are in roughly the same jobs and have roughly the same experience and education levels.

That view is less simple-minded, but, like its counterpart, is merely an attempt to understand our current circumstances. How did we get here in the first place?

Just a cursory glance at history shows us that women have trickled into the American workplace over the years, with surges during times when large numbers of men were absent, such as in the Civil War, World War I and World War II. And the point from which there was no turning back came just in the 1970s when the equal rights movement failed to produce a constitutional amendment but profoundly changed our society.

Viewed from that perspective – all of human history telling us one thing (whether we agree with it or not) and very recent experience teaching us the opposite, the appropriate response to the pay gap would seem to be, “Wow, it’s really that small?” (An aside for those who might be thinking that the perfect solution would be a new worldwide war of catastrophic proportions: Don’t forget that women now have an equal right – nay, an equal obligation – to be slaughtered in those wars.)

But looking a little deeper into history complicates the issue further. For most of human history, farming was the principal occupation, at which both men and women labored mightily. It was only during the industrial revolution that “work” became largely something outside the home, and that tended to be a family affair as well. Ironically, it was the push by government to make work less taxing on women and children that helped create the great work-home dichotomy we all love and loathe today.

So even the idea of the husband as the heroic breadwinner and the wife as the nurturing caregiver can be seen as a relatively recent phenomenon, and what in the world are we to make of that?

At times like these, I fall back on my ultimate framer of universal perspective, an exercise that always helps me cut through the clutter:

Spread your arms straight out from your shoulders. From fingertip to fingertip represents the history of the Earth. Starting from your left hand, up to the wrist is a time we know nothing about – all the evidence is gone. Somewhere between the wrist and the elbow, one-celled organisms probably appear. By your shoulder, the atmosphere begins to be enriched with oxygen. Past your head and beyond the right shoulder, two-celled organisms appear. By mid-forearm, more complex organisms appear. At your right wrist, “hard parts” like bones and teeth appear that leave a fossil record. Between the joints of the fingers on your right hand is when dinosaurs roam the Earth.

Now, take a nail file and gently scrape it along the fingernail of your longest finger. Congratulations – you just wiped out all of recorded human history. And you deserve the same pay for the effort, no matter who you are.

Of course, that’s if you believe the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. If you don’t, nothing to see here, move along.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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