Ending the wage gap

We now know the secret to closing the gap between men’s and women’s wages: promote more women to upper-level management.

The Washington Post reports: “American women earn substantially more money and narrow the long-standing gender gap in income if other women in their workplaces reach the ranks of senior management.”

This finding was released at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) and based on a review of 2000 Census data of 1.3 million American workers in nearly 30,000 jobs and 79 metropolitan areas.

Conservative women have long argued there is no wage gap. Liberal women insist there is, but find it to be a mite larger than the one revealed by sociologists. Conservatives say that among young women and men with equal educational credentials, women earn 98 cents for every dollar earned by men. They add that women’s lifestyle choices (staying home to raise children, taking family leave time and/or working fewer hours) _ not prejudice _ dictate lower earnings. Liberals insist gender bias is still alive and well in the American workplace.

Somewhere in between, sociologists have found a more believable theory: that upper-level male managers tend to pay their male employees better than female employees, and now, for the first time, we find women do the same thing.

“Surprisingly, men who work for women managers seem to do slightly worse in income than men who work for men, irrespective of whether the women managers are in senior position(s),” the Post noted.

So what this means is that, for the most part, old-style, glaringly obvious gender bias is as passe as high-fat food. But managers of either gender will tend to favor their own in handing out bonuses and raises. In other words, managers tend to surround themselves with employees who are like themselves and reward those employees accordingly.

I recall covering the Supreme Court when the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist was still in charge. I watched once as he read from the bench his majority opinion in a school-busing case. The ruling dismantled school busing for the purpose of achieving racial balance in public schools. The opinion’s gist was that busing, a creation of the courts, was a necessity in an era when “de jure” or legal segregation had just ended.

But what was keeping schools largely segregated by race some four decades later was something else: the voluntary decisions of people to buy or rent housing in neighborhoods filled with other people of similar racial backgrounds. Since school assignments were based on residential boundaries, he reasoned, many public schools reflected the racial homogeny people choose when they choose to live near others of the same race.

With voluntary housing choices, not illegal school segregation, creating schools that were 80 percent or 90 percent white or black, the chief announced, it no longer fell to the courts to impose busing to desegregate schools. And nary a word of protest emanated from civil-rights groups.

Just as the races congregate in neighborhoods, so do the genders at work. The ASA found: “Men work in jobs that are 70 percent male on average; women work in jobs that are 70 percent female on average. Jobs with similar educational requirements can pay very differently: Truck drivers earn far more than nurse’s aides, for example, and corporate lawyers earn more than family lawyers.”

I’m not advocating for comparable worth, a much-maligned concept in which economists try to even out the pay gap between nurse’s aides and truck drivers (or other male- and female-dominated fields). But certainly a similarly situated and credentialed woman should make the same salary as her male counterpart in the same job.

But perhaps we’ve entered an era when society will sit back and accept that gender (and, by inference, race) bias is permissible, when it is based on “choice” rather than on prejudice. I hope not. I hope the restless demand for equality is still a motivating force in American society _ one that may be latent at the moment, but still there.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)