Much of what we are told about the complexity of gender and how it impacts on wages in the western and / or English speaking world is rubbish. Women do not earn significantly less than men because of discrimination, despite what you have been told by the media, which over-simplifies complex information into politically correct nonsense that agencies like Graduate Careers Australia disown.

I’ve been collecting articles about the topic for a couple of years, but found the basics of my argument made in a Crikey article earlier this year. I shelved my unfinished article but have decided to revive and revise it as I cite some different sources to Crikey and think it contributes something else to the broader debate.

The Crikey article concludes by stating that ‘while a gender pay gap does exist in Australia, it does not seem to be the case that women are paid much less simply because of their gender. Choosing lower-paid careers, a temporary break in earnings to raise children and a need for flexible or part-time working hours all hurt women’s earning potential.

I broadly agree with this argument but want to explore the causes in more detail.

Causes of the wage gap

I’m not denying the existence of the wage gap. It is real, but its cause is not ongoing structural discrimination against women. The gap is primarily due to a series of voluntary choices people make.

Men work more hours

This 2011 Australian article provides three reasons why the difference in average earnings between men and women is not caused by gender-based discrimination against women. First, ‘Male full-time workers work longer hours than female full-time workers.’ They earn more because they work more. Simple as that.

Extreme capitalism

Second, ‘all the action in terms of big differences between male and female earnings is at the upper end of the earnings distribution. For lower-paid workers, work-related characteristics completely explain the earnings gap‘. In other words, a few (mostly male) extreme capitalists earn so much money, out of all proportion to everyone else, that they distort the statistics. Blame capitalism for that, not sexism.

Voluntary segmentation

Third, ‘the sex segmentation of the workforce – men in men’s jobs and women in women’s jobs – actually narrows the earnings gap because there are quite a lot of middle-earning female workers (think nurses, teachers) and quite a lot of low-earning male workers‘. Feminist critics tend to compare women on median incomes with men on high incomes, such as female nurses to male miners, and complain about the differences, but not women on median incomes to men on low incomes.

Low income men are invisible in society. While there is endless concern about low income industries mostly employing women, such as child care workers, no one cares about low income jobs mostly done by men, such as taxi drivers and rubbish collectors.

Historical discrimination against women

Older women came into the workforce before equal opportunity became law, and at a time when jobs were for life, even for low skilled men. ‘The pay gap for full-time workers is biggest now for women in their 50s – those least likely to have been encouraged when young to pursue a career or hang on to one after children. But it narrows with every decade subtracted from a woman’s age.‘ For women who are now in their 20s, this difference no longer exists.

Modern factors influencing the wage gap

Economic conditions

It can be plausibly argued that ‘in the future, many more men will have employment patterns similar to most working women of today. But, whereas women now have interrupted patterns due to child bearing and rearing, men will have similar interruptions due to contract employment; the need to re-train; and to move in and out of the labour force in concert with the business cycle.

The physical labouring jobs previously occupied by men have largely disappeared and women appear more adaptable to the growing professional, service and care industries – industries that many men simply don’t have the social skills to work in. The knowledge economy is benefiting women more than men. Women are advancing and men are falling behind.


Evidence from the UK indicates that the wage gap is lowest amongst those with no qualifications. Amongst the tertiary educated, women are achieving more than men.

In the US, recent research indicates that ‘single, childless working women under 30 earned 8 percent more than their male counterparts did‘. Young women represent more than 50% of university graduates, and thus have the capacity and potential to earn higher wages than the general population. It’s the same in the UK.

gender-degrees the politics of gender and wages, or why the gender wage gap is fiction

Source: New York Times

Given that equal pay legislation has long been in place and women have constituted more than 50% of university graduates for two decades, it is plausible to argue that no significant inequality or discrimination against women exists in the economy.

Work-life balance

Research suggests women are simply less willing than men to work long hours and to make other personal sacrifices to prioritise their careers. Women appear less committed to work. In a US survey, ‘44 percent of women wished that they didn’t work at all, compared with 22 percent of men‘. Even childless women are much less willing to work full-time than men.

As this recent US article asks, ‘Do women want to be working more, if only the kids—and their useless husbands—would let them?‘ The answer seems to be ‘no’. In a world where many men seem to define their existence through work, women seem to have a better work-life balance. They reject the primacy of work as being an impediment to a good life. ‘Perhaps savvy women have simply faced up to a reality men refuse to face – that the traditional model of full-time work means less time spent with family.

And this: ‘women’s work-lifestyle choices account for the stubborn resistance to a life in full-time work – most women choose to structure their working lives around family responsibilities‘. Note the word choice. Women are not forced to stay home.

Heterosexual couples’ choices about caring for children

The primary cause of the income difference between women and men is the way women and men make choices about raising children. In parent couples it is up to each partner in the relationship to negotiate the paid and domestic work they do and how that effects the relationship. ‘In reality, for many mothers the decision whether to work is purely a financial one. And except if they are a single mother, it isn’t a decision they make alone, but a negotiated outcome between two partners in a relationship.

Given the advance of tertiary qualified women in the workplace, the outcome of such decision making cannot be assumed to be naive but consciously calculated. ‘Couples today need to make more active decisions about who will take time out of the paid workforce to look after children. Couples must consider which partner has the higher earning capacity and whose career progression and future earnings capacity will be most negatively affected by taking time out.

The point is it’s up to them to determine, but mostly it seems they don’t. Women and men seem to communicate and negotiate badly when it comes to cohabiting and parenting. Poor compromises are made. I’m generalising here, but the broad circumstances appear to be a reflection of these choices.


Men partially have children to maintain relationships with women who would otherwise not establish or maintain relationships with them. Many men don’t want to be primary carers of children and women know this. They resent the impact of children on their finances, relationships and independence.

Women partially have children with men who refuse to contribute equitably to domestic labour and parenting responsibilities because they may otherwise miss out on having children. They resent the exhaustion of the ‘double shift‘ and their lack of independence.

There are limits to this self-sacrifice. In countries where gender role differences are more pronounced, there is evidence that women are making decisions accordingly. In Italy, for example, the fertility rate is declining because women are refusing to have children with lazy sexist men.

Men and women find themselves in a mutually dissatisfying stalemate. Neither wants to give more to the other or further undermine their own position.

The motherhood penalty and the fatherhood bonus

Men and women fare differently in terms of parenthood according to their socio-economic status.

The motherhood penalty is the premise that women are offered fewer pay rises or promotions because employers assume that women will take time out of the workforce in the future to have children, leading to an inconvenience to the employer. While employer bias is a plausible interpretation of the circumstances, but it is unhelpful to describe it as an expectation.

The fatherhood bonus is the finding that men earn more if they have children than without. The cause for this is not necessarily employer bias. In the US in 2012 ‘women with children under 18 earn[ed] less than women without minor children, while men with kids under 18 earn[ed] more than men who don’t have younger kids.‘ Based on UK data, this may be because men who are fathers are more likely to be employed than men without children.

This parenting difference impacts on men more than women because more men than women don’t have children. According to 2012 US data, ‘By age 40, 85% of women had had a birth, and 76% of men had fathered a child.‘ In a recent Australian study, 13% of men aged 45-59 were childless, compared to 10% of women.

Socio-economic status

In the UK, men’s wealth is inversely related to the likelihood being childless. In other words, wealthy men are more likely to have children. This suggests that the fatherhood bonus is not the product of workplace bias but broader demographic forces. Low socio-economic status men are considered by women to be poor potential partners and thus do not have the opportunity to have children.

Low socio-economic status women are more likely to have children, and to have more children, than high status women, increasing the time they are likely to not be in the workforce and thus making it more likely that they will fall further behind economically.

GLBTI individuals and same sex couples

2011 US data suggests that about 25% of same sex couples there have children. Australian data also from 2011 from the ABS states that ‘Children in same-sex couple families make up only one in a thousand of all children in couple families (0.1%). The vast majority of these children (89%) were in female same-sex couple families.‘ These numbers are clarified by the explanation that ‘Children in same-sex couples may have been born into a previous opposite-sex relationship of one of the partners’. According the ABS, 89% of children living with same sex couples are living with female same sex couples.

This data correlates with other data about gender and employment. Lesbians are far more likely than gay men to have children and this is clearly reflected in the employment statistics. With reference to ABS data again, ‘Members of male same-sex couples (48.6 per cent) are more likely to both be employed full-time than members of female same-sex couples (40.4 per cent) and opposite-sex couples (21.5 per cent).

Gay men earn more on average than heterosexual men (lesbians are also more likely to be high income earners than straight women). Some childless men are high earning gay men, but while gay men contribute to the childlessness statistics, their high incomes don’t make up for the low incomes of other men. It is disappointing that some recent research on childlessness amongst Australian men does not even consider sexual preference or identity in relation to childlessness.

The difference between work rates for women in heterosexual and lesbian relationships is interesting. It may be read to imply that cultural values and traditional gender roles, rather than gender discrimination, figures significantly in the choices women make about parenting and workforce participation.

How to reduce the gap

Research by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) indicates that, after controlling for all possible variables in the pay gap between university graduates who have been in the workforce for 1 year, a pay gap of about 7% exists that cannot be accounted for. Another US article notes that single, never married women earned 96% of what men did in 2012 and that the unaccounted for wage gap may only be about 5% at most.

Gender inequality in the workplace requires cultural change to be minimised, but it is more about changing the world of work so that it is less inhumane for everyone: ‘we must stop seeing work-family policy as a women’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles and elders. Feminists should certainly support this campaign. But they don’t need to own it.

Workplace flexibility will only improve when men and women equally demand greater choice. If men worked more like women, such as by seeking more time out of the paid workforce, the gender wage gap would be reduced.

There are many things that heterosexual couples who are potential parents can do to increase the equity of their circumstances during times of unequal earning. The working partner can put half their superannuation into the account of their partner, for example, meaning that the non-working partner continues to save for their retirement.

They can agree to take alternate time off work, for example a birth mother taking the first year off to be the primary carer, then her partner taking the following year off to be the primary carer. Both can agree to subsequently work part-time and share parenting duties.

Partners could even draw up legally binding contracts between themselves with financial penalties for breaches, if for example one refuses to sacrifice their career to take on the parental responsibility they previously agreed to.

Women could refuse to have relationships with men who won’t share the housework and refuse to have children with men who won’t commit to parenting duties.


Whatever you do, don’t worry about the overall population. There’s too many humans destroying the planet already. When countries start facing serious ageing and fertility decline issues, such as Japan, they start paying generous parenting inducements.

the politics of gender and wages, or why the gender wage gap is fiction

5 thoughts on “the politics of gender and wages, or why the gender wage gap is fiction

  • 17 June 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Great, well-thought out article, Brian.

    One quibble with how you said:
    “Women could refuse to have relationships with men who won’t share the housework and refuse to have children with men who won’t commit to parenting duties.”

    How would they know their partner ‘won’t commit to parenting duties’ until the man becomes a parent? Seems a bit of a gamble.

    • 17 June 2014 at 2:55 pm

      Most couples live together before having children, so women can consider the behaviour of their partner in terms of domestic equity long before having children. Furthermore, as I said in the previous paragraphs, couples could establish a binding contract between themselves about taking time out of the workforce. If the man, for example, refuses to quit work and stay at home to care for children as agreed, he could be sued by his partner for breaching the contract.

  • 17 June 2014 at 8:31 pm

    “If the man, for example, refuses to quit work and stay at home to care for children as agreed, he could be sued by his partner for breaching the contract.”
    – Not in an Australian court.

    • 17 June 2014 at 9:18 pm

      I’m not a lawyer, but as I understand it people can make all kinds of contracts, such as prenuptial agreements, about shared responsibilities and resources. I’ve no evidence that such a deal is impossible in Australia.


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