Why is there so much debate over the existence of a gender pay gap?

The 'wage gap' is a concept that has proven surprisingly controversial over the years...

Why is there so much debate over the existence of a gender pay gap?

File photo of Euro notes and coins | Image: Niall Carson / PA Wire/Press Association Images

The much-discussed gender wage gap has become a talking point once again in light of a new study. 

According to the research from Morgan McKinley, Irish women are paid an average of 20% less than Irish men. On average, men in professional jobs earn €12,500 more than women when bonuses and salaries are taken into account.

When the two are split, the average salary gap stands at 16% while the bonus gap goes up as high as 50%. The gap was found to be wider for women who have high levels of education and experience, meaning you are more likely to face a gender pay gap, the more qualified you are for the job. 

On a Europe-wide scale, the European Commission has been a major advocate for reducing the gender wage cap, saying that women in the EU earn "84 cents for every €1 a man earns" and that "the older you are, the bigger the gap".

The Commission further suggests that "the gender pay gap exists across our economy, and in all sectors and occupations", and highlights that women should earn the same as men per hour whether they're working full-time or part-time.

It is an issue frequently highlighted by activist groups in Ireland and abroad. Only this month, a major protest - including staff staging walkouts at some major institutions - took place in France to highlight a continued pay gap in the country.

The skeptics

Despite the many studies confirming the existence of a wage gap, it is also a concept that has proven surprisingly controversial over the years.

Much of the skepticism is relegated to social media, where it is common to see stories about gender pay gap responded to by people who suggest the idea is a 'myth'.

However doubts about such a gap's very existence have crossed over to the media as well, including in some mainstream outlets. Don't Buy Into The Gender Pay Gap Myth, reads a Forbes headline. In the Wall Street Journal, Sarah Ketterer argues about The 'Wage Gap' Myth That Won’t Die. A Time article explores The Gender Wage Gap Myth and 5 Other Feminist Fantasies.

Certainly dismissals of the gender pay gap are, in some cases, a consequence of anti-feminist sentiment and backlash against progressive values seen in more right-leaning media. It should come as no surprise, for example, to see a controversy-baiting Breitbart article claiming the concept has been 'comprehensively debunked' (it then goes on to list '11 reasons why there should be' a gap).

So, beyond such explicitly fringe opinions, is there cause for skepticism? Much of the debate - and, indeed, a lot of the statistics - has originated in the US. Christina Hoff Sommers is an academic with the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. She is a controversial figure in some circles: a self-proclaimed feminist who has become known as one of the most vocal critics of aspects of contemporary feminism.

She argues: "The 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. When all these relevant factors are taken into consideration, the wage gap narrows to about five cents. And no one knows if the five cents is a result of discrimination or some other subtle, hard-to-measure difference between male and female workers."

77 cents

Hoff Sommers is referring to a common claim - repeated frequently by the likes of Barack Obama - that "women earn 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as a man" (that figure tends to fluctuate a few cents from year-to-year and politician-to-politician).

Fact-checking website Politifact looked into this headline claim, and interestingly found that it is in fact a rather complicated statistic that can either be 'mostly true' or 'mostly false' depending on how it is actually worded.

The fact-checkers found that "the 77-cent figure derived from a federal government measure does not apply to men and women who do the same job. Instead it refers to the average disparity between what men and women earn, period. All women’s earnings compared to all men’s earnings. Still, even when presented more accurately, the statistic comes with a raft of caveats."

A more recent fact check by the Washington Post - using a '79 cent' figure - concludes: "From a political perspective, the Census Bureau’s 79-cent figure is golden. Unless women stop getting married and having children, and start abandoning careers in childhood education for aerospace engineering, the gap in wages will almost certainly persist. Democrats thus can keep bringing it up every year.

"But Democrats must begin to acknowledge that '79 cents' does not begin to capture what is actually happening in the workforce and society," it adds.

Picture by MARTIN MEISSNER AP/Press Association Images

There is no doubt quite a bit nuance to consider when exploring this subject. There can, for example, be significant fluctuations from profession to profession. Further complications will inevitably arise when you take other factors into account - age, race, marital status etc... Certainly, there have been suggestions that more basic discrimination plays some sort of role. This is not to mention the disagreements over how to effectively 'close the gap'.

Perhaps it boils down to the very fundamental way modern businesses work. Harvard professor of economics Claudia Goldin argues that "the gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours".

In other words, high-paying jobs are often rewarded to those with the least flexible schedules."These types of job penalise workers who have caregiving responsibilities outside the workplace," a Vox article explains. "Those workers tend to be women."

There are, then, several factors that need to be considered when talking about any gender inequality in pay. The challenges and variables involved go some distance in explaining why some degree of controversy surrounds the very concept of a gender wage gap and certainly why individual stats tend to provoke heated debate. But, some outlier opinions aside, it's very difficult to deny a gap exists - it's the specifics of the gap where the real controversy lies.