Men have a clear earnings advantage over women in the current U.S. labor market. Although we normally talk about women being at a disadvantage and earning only 77 cents for every dollar men make, this only serves to reinforce the perception that men are the norm, a standard to which women should measure up. Actual gender equality means not just saying that women can do everything men can, it means recognizing the value in what women already do, and thus encouraging men to become more like women. This means recognizing that men have gained advantages from historical gender roles and continue to hold those advantages today.
It’s always easier to talk about social relationships in terms of disadvantage, and already I anticipate I will be accused of attempting to guilt-trip men. It’s more comfortable to say we are getting rid of women’s disadvantages than getting rid of men’s advantages, and yet they come down to the same thing. The point is not to make men feel as though they are responsible for a social structure they didn’t create. The point is that men are responsible for recognizing that they are receiving and unearned advantage at the cost of disadvantaging women, and then working to change the structure that allows and perpetuates that. To the extent that they fail to do that, or worse yet attempt to alter the structure to their further advantage, then yes, they should feel guilty.
The case of the wage gap is particularly interesting. Most of what composes the earnings gap between men and women is not a result of blatant discrimination. Yes, that still exists, but the majority of the gap can be explained by occupational choices, work hours, unionization rates, and taking time away from the labor market. Now, a few critics of the wage gap would chalk it all up choices women make and claim there’s no problem. But choices don’t happen in a vacuum. The fact that the wage gap is largely (but not entirely) explained by choices points to the problems with just looking at women in the workplace and ignoring the broader social structure.
Women are more likely to take lower pay and fewer hours to be with their family, or to sacrifice their career opportunities to move with their husband if he gets a job in a different city. They also still do more more housework and more childcare. While women face barriers in the workplace, those really have been reduced over the past 50 years. The problem is that because we’ve treated the men as the norm, we’ve wound essentially practicing the idea that remunerated work outside the home is more valuable than work inside the home and in the community. It’s not enough to allow women to take on historically male roles, we also must recognize that what women were doing before is incredibly important, and therefore encourage men to take on historically female roles.
Men have been using their power to mess up the world for thousands of years. Making women more like men is not the solution to our problems. Perhaps it’s time to try making men more like women. A good first step would be to stop comparing women to men, and start comparing men to women.
Update: One of my favorite sociology blogs, Family Inequality, talks about ‘flipping the effect’, that is, comparing men to women, or married couples to single couples, etc. It’s worth reading to see a few other examples of how our usual comparison frames can trick us into thinking of something as normal.
Mathematical note: It is occasionally a point of confusion that women earn 23% less than men while men earn 30% more than women. This has to do with the shift in the denominator while keeping the pay ratio constant. 77 is 23% less than 100 ((100-77)/100=.23), while 100 is 30% more than 77 (100/77=1.3). Note that 77/100 = 100/130, and thus it is correct to say that women earn 23% less than men and that men earn 30% more than women.