Asymmetries in the workplace do not necessarily reflect gender discrimination
As I’m writing this, the October 30 conversation between Jordan Peterson and Helen Lewis accumulated over six million views on British GQ’s YouTube channel.
Similar to a central point of contention that emerged in Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman’s conversation that went viral roughly a year ago (and which accumulated 14 million views on Channel 4 News’ YouTube channel), Peterson and Lewis disagreed over whether asymmetries between men and women in terms of both (1) their representation in the workplace and (2) their earnings are markers of oppressive, discriminatory structures entrenched in our society that limit women’s opportunities for vocational success, subordinating women as a class of people.
In both of these interviews, Peterson’s interlocutors held that asymmetries are ipso facto the result of discrimination.
Peterson, alternatively, argued that asymmetries, such as the observed wage gap between men and women and different concentrations of men and women in certain professions, often arise from the confluence of various factors which have nothing to do with the albatross of discrimination.
These include differences in preferences, competencies, and life choices (both poor and advantageous), and the ability to defer gratification.
In this essay, I would like to contribute to the public conversation on this topic by discussing two fascinating studies that supplant discrimination as an explanation for vocational and earning asymmetries with measurable and compelling alternatives.
1) Gender distributions in the workplace and the “Gender Equality Paradox”
Peterson’s go-to example for demonstrating that asymmetries in earnings and representation do not reflect structural or systematic discrimination in society involves the findings from a February 2018 study titled “The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education”.
The study concludes that the countries that have gone farthest in making non-discrimination on the basis of gender the object of the law (such as Finland, Norway, and Sweden) have unexpectedly seen a smaller proportion of women pursuing degrees in STEM fields than countries that are comparatively either poorer or less liberalized.
In countries like Finland, Norway, and Sweden, in which there is a dearth of social, legal, and political strictures blocking women from full participation in the workforce, women appear to be self-selecting into non-STEM professions.
The study, which looked at 475,000 teenagers across 67 countries, found that despite broadly similar achievements in STEM subjects between boys and girls, girls tended to indicate a lower degree of interest in science.
The authors speculate that, in wealthier and more liberal countries, personal career preferences are more strongly expressed. Alternatively, in countries with lower degrees of gender equality, the desire to secure relatively high-paying employment and to pursue a better quality of life
promoted girls’ and women’s’ decision to pursue careers in STEM fields.
Countries seeing fewer women graduate in a STEM discipline include Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria (20-25% of STEM graduates). Countries seeing more women graduate with degrees in STEM include Algeria, Turkey, Tunisia, Albania, and the United Arab Emirates (35-40% of STEM graduates).
The “gender equality paradox” shows that unequal representation of the sexes within certain career paths isn’t necessarily a result of discrimination. A clearer example may lie in dangerous jobs, in which men represent between 75% and 99.9% of the top twenty most dangerous jobs in America (like logging, fishing, roofing, garbage collection, cement and concrete manufacturing, and mining).
Does this overrepresentation of men imply that women are being discriminated against by hiring managers in these industries?
Those who hold the position that unequal distributions of men and women in the workplace is somehow the product of discrimination, exclusion, or marginalization fail to consider the prospect that asymmetrical career outcomes are products of differing preferences and priorities.
As the “Gender Equality Paradox” study illustrates, countries which maintain legal institutions and social norms supportive of equality of opportunity (i.e., the absence of identity-dependent obstacles to entering a particular profession) may nevertheless experience inequalities of outcome (i.e., men and women may self-select into different industries, yielding different concentrations of gender representation in certain fields).
It is evident that factors other than the specter of gender discrimination affect representation in the workplace. What about asymmetries in earnings?
2) Earning differentials along gender lines and the University of Chicago Uber Study
Researchers at the University of Chicago published a fascinating study in June of 2018 that examined an observed 7% gap between the earnings of male and female Uber drivers (akin to the oft-cited wage gap between men and women). Given the weight of the study’s conclusions and the gravity of the topic in today’s political conversations about inequalities and how we should understand the relationship between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, it surprises me that this study did not receive more attention from the media (or from Jordan Peterson).
In the study, the authors examine a wage gap observed in a sample of over one million Uber drivers, an interesting place for the notorious gender wage gap to appear, given that (i) Uber drivers are paid the same wages per ride (Uber sets its fees through a publicly-available formula that does not vary between drivers, there is no negotiation of earnings, and earnings are tied to the number and length of rides given, not to tenure or hours per week worked), (ii) riders do not select rides based on the gender of their drivers, and (iii) the labor market is flexible. In the absence of employer-based and rider-based discrimination on the basis of gender, a 7% gap in earnings between male and female drivers was nevertheless observed. What sustains the rift in earnings between male and female Uber drivers?
The researchers fully explained the 7% earning gap between male and female Uber drivers in terms of three factors. First, men tended to drive in locations and at times of the week that are considered to be more dangerous, thereby commanding higher ride prices (i.e., areas with higher crime). Second, male drivers have accumulated more experience than women drivers on the platform, which the authors attribute to drivers developing knowledge of when and where to drive, and how to strategically accept and cancel trips. According to their analysis, drivers who have accumulated more than 2,500 total trips earned 14% more per hour than drivers who have completed fewer than 100 trips. Men accumulate more experience than women by driving longer hours each week and by being less likely to stop working with Uber.
Finally, the third determinant of the gender pay gap observed in the population of Uber drivers is averagedriving speed. In the aggregate, men’s higher driving speeds allows them to marginally increase their earnings. These three factors – choices over where too drive, men’s willingness to spend more hours per week driving to gain more experience, and higher average driving speeds – are preference-based factors which increase male drivers’ earnings on the platform.
As the authors note, their observations add additional support to the claim that pay gaps between men and women working in similar jobs are likely related to gender differences in preferences and choices. They relate their findings to a 2010 study (Bertrand et al., 2010), which tracked the earnings of graduates of a single prestigious MBA program. The earning gap between male and female graduates of this program started small but widened considerably over time, attributed almost exclusively to (1) differences in hours worked, (2) women being more likely to have gaps in their careers, explained by the choice to rear children. Each of these factors contributing to wage gaps between men and women working in similar positions have nothing to do with discrimination limiting women’s full participation in the workforce.
3) Inequalities in outcomes are not sufficient to conclude that discrimination has taken place
Despite the factors other than discrimination that result in both (1) asymmetries in workplace representation and (2) wage differentials between men and women, proponents of leftist politics like Helen Lewis and Cathy Newman consider both of these observed trends to be the product of widespread male suppression of women’s career prospects and earnings, “the patriarchy”. Which men are they referring to, specifically?
There are several issues that, despite not enjoying regular scholarly or media attention, plague men more often than women. For instance, men (1) experience harsher punishments for the same crimes, (2) are over represented globally in prisons, (3) are more often subjected to compulsory military service, (4) constitute the majority of homeless people without shelter, (5) experience a higher prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse, (6) suffer from higher suicide rates, (7) are far more often involved in physically taxing and dangerous jobs (e.g., exposure to toxins, front-line military duty, mining, sewage cleaning, and firefighting), (8) suffer far more workplace fatalities, and (9) are more often victims of physical assault (Soet & Geary 2019). Are the men involved in these struggles limiting women’s workplace representation or earnings? Or, does the “patriarchy” refer to a sub-stratum of high status, high achieving men? If so, how does that minority of men differ from high achieving women who occupy similar positions of influence (like Cathy Newman and Helen Lewis themselves)?
The fact of the matter remains that, as corroborated by studies including the “Gender Equality Paradox” study and the UChicago Uber study, asymmetries in workplace representation and earnings are not necessarily the product of discrimination on the basis of gender. Instead, these imbalances arise in societies that have high degrees of equality of opportunities. Of course, when individuals’ opportunities are undermined due to, for example, instances of unequal treatment before the law or political corruption, those occurrences should be identified and punished as such. But, career and family choices, freely made by adult citizens, that result in asymmetries in workplace representation and earnings must no longer be considered the product of conspiracies or systematic oppression.
There are three takeaway points I would like to reemphasize:
1) In countries with little to no institutional barriers to employment on the basis of identity, men and women often make choices (involving their own family and vocational priorities) that result in asymmetries in workplace representation and earnings (whether among Uber drivers or graduates
of prestigious MBA programs).
2) Men overwhelmingly outnumber women in the most dangerous jobs. This also doesn’t indicate that discrimination has taken place.
3) While unequal treatment before the law and corruption should not be tolerated, different career and family choices (as well as preferences and aptitudes) that result in asymmetries in workplace representation and earnings neither result from conspiracies nor from oppression.