People who don’t believe in the gender wage gap and people who do seem to agree on an awful lot.

Many people who think the gender wage gap doesn’t exist argue that the gap between male and female wages can be explained by other factors. Women are more likely to work in low-paying jobs and to work part-time. Women are more likely to leave the labor force to take care of children or old people. Women are more likely to seek out “family friendly” jobs that have better benefits and lower pay. When you account for all these factors, while outright wage discrimination still exists, it plays a relatively small role in why women earn less than men. (For more, here‘s a good Politifact article.)

All of the smart, well-informed feminists agree. For instance, NOW’s factsheet on pay equality talks about occupational segregation, cutting back on work to do caretaking, and the motherhood penalty. Barry Deutsch’s excellent article on the pay gap also talks about those factors. I got a gender studies degree; when we talked about the origins of the pay gap in class, we talked about caretaking and occupational segregation. While there are a lot of people who think the wage gap is purely a product of wage discrimination, they are mostly people who prefer slogans to statistics.

But I see a lot of conversations online arguing about the wage gap exists in which the participants don’t seem to realize that they agree on all the empirical facts. The anti-feminist leaves thinking that the feminist is using shitty statistical methodology to justify hating men and playing the victim, and the feminist leaves thinking that the anti-feminist is using shitty statistical methodology to justify ignoring the history of sexism against women, and they never actually argue about what they actually disagree about.

I think the actual point of disagreement between smart, well-informed anti-feminists and smart, well-informed feminists about the wage gap is whether or not occupational segregation, unequal distribution of caretaking, and so on are bad things.

My understanding of the anti-feminist position is that the wage gap is a product of women’s choices. Women want to be nurses, elementary school teachers, and social workers; women want to take care of their children and their parents. It is obviously unjust if someone is paying you less than they’d pay a man because you’re a woman, but it is not unjust to allow someone to make their own damn decisions about their own lives. If women have decided of their own free will that they care more about being able to take a day off when their kid is sick than they do about having a company car and a corner office, then there is nothing unfair or sexist about this reality. Many anti-feminists believe that these decisions are a product of innate female psychology; while of course many women have no interest in caretaking, they argue, women as a group tend to care more about taking care of others than men as a group do, perhaps for evolutionary reasons. Since caretaking professions tend to be paid less (or, in the case of parenting, to not be paid at all), they earn less money.

The feminist position is that these choices are not made in a vacuum. Of course, any individual woman can choose to become a nurse or a stay-at-home mother if she so pleases; neither I nor Barry nor the National Organization for Women has any interest in forcing women into careers they have no desire to pursue. But we don’t view the fact that this is the product of a choice to mean that there is no injustice, simply that the injustice is probably located somewhere else.

To pick an extreme example, consider a slight variant on the trolley problem. A runaway trolley is going to hit five people on the trolley tracks, and you have the ability to switch it so that it hits you instead. You do so. Would it make sense to say “there’s nothing unjust about this situation! It would have been unjust if someone had deliberately switched a trolley so that you would be hit by it, but you made the free and independent decision to be hit by the trolley yourself, so there is nothing morally wrong about this situation.” That would be silly. It is true that you have not experienced the injustice of a person deliberately hitting you with a trolley. But you may have experienced the injustice of poor trolley safety practices, or a philosophy-themed supervillain going about tying people to tracks in order to set up moral dilemmas, or similar. Your free choice in a situation does not mean the situation itself was okay.

Similarly, the injustice of the gender pay gap might be located somewhere else. Perhaps we should fix the mysterious great filter keeping women from going into STEM. Perhaps we should create special programs to encourage men to enter low-paying female-dominated professions like nurse or teacher, the same way we have these programs for women in high-paying male-dominated professions. (I actually think there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in that one, partially because a lot of feminists are opposed to affirmative action for men.) Perhaps we should fight the stigma that keeps many men from becoming primary caregivers of their children. Perhaps maternity leave causes women to bond with their babies and not want to leave them to go to work, and if we expanded paternity leave then more men would bond with their babies and not want to leave them to go to work. Perhaps daycare should be state-subsidized. Perhaps we should end the idea of “supermom” and raise awareness that if you aren’t a completely shitty parent your kids will probably turn out fine and you don’t have to feel mommy guilt about sticking your kid in front of Sesame Street instead of baking cookies with them. Perhaps reforms to the care of the elderly and the disabled would ease the burden on female caretakers. Perhaps we should buy boys more dolls.

The anti-feminist, naturally, will respond by pointing out:

(1) If you have this thoughtful, nuanced position, then how come you are spending so much time on ending wage discrimination, which is a tiny part of the problem? Why are you prioritizing the Paycheck Fairness Act instead of expanding paternity leave?

(2) Feminists tend to assume that “sexism” is the correct explanation for everything, and they should at least leave open the possibility that the wage gap is a product of legitimate preferences on the part of women that are not the product of sexism, whether internal or external.

And then we can have an interesting and productive discussion! Which we cannot have as long as both sides are confused about whether or not they agree on the empirical facts.