Backgrounder: Gender and Wages
by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.
What is a fair wage? Should the coach of the men’s basketball team receive more pay than the coach of the college’s women’s basketball team? Should a 63-year-old, male, principal oboist and a 44-year-old, female, principal flautist receive the same pay from the Boston Symphony Orchestra?
What could be more fair than correcting a salary difference representing gender bias? Or is there more to it than that? Let’s think through it.
Recently, one college president said firmly, “The coaches should be paid the same,” despite professors being paid differently at his college, business professors making considerably more money than liberal arts professors.
What about the flautist, who got her start in 1998 with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic? Her case is going through the courts. Two broad questions immediately come to mind. First, what is a fair wage? Second, how should it be determined?
Adam Smith said that a man’s “wages must be at least sufficient to maintain him. They must even upon most occasions be somewhat more; otherwise it would be impossible for him to bring up a family,” namely, a husband and wife with two children. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII made the same claim.
A fair wage enables a family of four to live without want and misery. What, then, goes into establishing a fair wage?
Smith identified several considerations for instance, “wages of labor vary with the ease or hardship of labor . . . with the easiness and cheapness, or the difficulty and expense of learning the business great trust which must be reposed in the workmen . . .”
He viewed inequalities without alarm. For example, people with jobs that require extensive training should be rewarded for bearing that burden. Few people would years of schooling for a mediocre salary. And nobody would trust someone being paid minimum wage to perform open-heart surgery.
Ethics textbooks follow Smith; a worker’s wage should meet the needs of the worker and the worker’s family.
One textbook observed that determining a fair wage is not an exercise in precision. Nevertheless, a rational fair wage model can provide help. One factor is the going rate for the industry and area, i.e., a plumber in Fort Wayne ought to compare the salary to other plumbers’ salaries in Fort Wayne.
The firm’s capability is another factor. Professional athletes want to play for New York teams. The Yankees have money. Athletes don’t typically want to play for a small-market team with little revenue. The same situation applies to the top 25 orchestras.
A job’s characteristics is yet another matter: the amount of training, experience and education; the job risks; and the physical or emotional burdens.
A wage’s relationship to other wages in the organization matters. Fair employers pay people who do the same job roughly equal pay, though that certainly isn’t the practice in higher education. Female accounting professors make more than male education professors.
Fairness of wage negotiations must exist. Wages consequent upon fraud, abuse of power, deceit and ignorance will not likely be fair. Employers threatening shutdowns, and unions threatening strikes that could bankrupt a company both violate this condition.
An alternative model, the ‘free market’ model for wages, demands only fairness of wage negotiation. The model protects the autonomy of the parties involved and its only requirement is that the employer and worker freely agree to the wage. Any interference with either party’s freedom violates this model, so deception and fraud can’t be present or full and informed, free decision-making is undercut.
The free-market model, used on campuses across the country, can be used for our oboist and flautist.
The rational model requires knowledge about playing the flute or oboe and data regarding the industry and area. The Washington Post reported that several female principals in the Boston Symphony Orchestra are paid more than several similarly situated men.
Of course, in any activity, a 63-year-old has more experience than a 44-year-old. The Boston Symphony Orchestra follows a combination of the rational and free-market models. Its reasoning is apparently sound.
Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. This is excerpted from an article to appear in the upcoming issue of the foundation’s quarterly journal.