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Monday, March 18, 2019

On the Gender Pay Gap, Narrative Is Trumping Facts

Even if on paper two employees do the “same” job, very few jobs are truly identical.

Image Credit: Flickr-1999 | CC BY 2.0 (

One of the great things about sharing the prevailing opinion is that you never have to examine it too closely. This is particularly true regarding issues of “identity” such as gender. Almost like a logical axiom, the idea that women are actively discriminated against in the labor market is often taken as a given. Many simply expect that women will be paid less than a man for doing the same work. It is, after all, something everyone knows.

Google’s Shocking Reverse Gender Pay Gap

This is why Google’s recent announcement that it was underpaying men relative to women came as a shock to some. The revelation followed an internal corporate study, which concluded that male software engineers with a certain job code—more than 10,000 employees—were being paid less than their female counterparts because the men “received less discretionary funds than women.” As NPR noted, the results flip “the typical gender pay gap narrative on its head.”

Responses to Google’s analysis have invariably been skeptical. The tech website WIRED ran this headline: “Are Men at Google Paid Less Than Women? Not Really.” Confidently dismissing Google’s report, the author of the piece, Nitasha Tiku, offered no tangible evidence that it was inaccurate. Rather, Tiku questioned the timing of the report, pointing out that the company is currently facing a gender discrimination lawsuit.

Even if on paper two employees do the “same” job, very few jobs are truly identical. There are so many intangible factors.

Bryce Covert at the New York Times similarly sidestepped the results of the report, writing “It’s hard to know for sure what’s going on with Google’s wage gap, because the company won’t release all of its data publicly.” The lack of publicly available data did not stop Covert from accusing the tech giant of systematically discriminating against women, however. Quoting a 2016 Labor Department official, Covert claimed that gender inequity at Google could be “quite extreme” despite the fact that the department’s data has also not been released to the public and therefore cannot be analyzed.

In any case, there is little reason to suspect that the government could ever have the requisite information to come to such a bold conclusion about Google’s labor practices. As Rachel Greszler at the Heritage Foundation points out, the Labor Department’s investigators are not in a position to judge the intangible factors that make one employee’s work different than another’s, even if on paper the employees do the “same” job. “In today’s day and age,” Greszler writes, “with more flexible job schedules, highly diversified job functions (even within a given title), and broad compensation packages, very few jobs are truly identical.”

The Narrative Lives on, Despite Contradictory Evidence

Nevertheless, for some, the belief that women in our society are unjustly paid less than men is virtually indisputable. It is the narrative upon which all facts, even those that contradict it, must be interpreted. Thus, Covert can assert that Google must be unfairly paying men more than women because “American women who work full time year-round make 20 percent less than men.”

The problem is that this claim has been debunked so many times that it’s surprising to see it still being parroted. Though women do, on average, make 80 percent of what the average man makes, it is almost certainly not due to discrimination. Reasons for the disparity are legion: Men have more marketable college degrees, they work more hours, they do more dangerous jobs, and they generally have more work experience. When adjusted for these and other variables, the gender pay gap falls to about 3 to 5 percent.

Recent statistics from Google undercut the narrative that only women, and never men, are disparately impacted in our society.

Ultimately, though, it is still possible for companies like Google to discriminate against particular women during particular hiring decisions and, at the same time, underpay some of their male employees.

To acknowledge this would not in any way serve to downplay the legitimate concerns that some people have about gender equity in the tech industry. It would, however, undercut the narrative that only women, and never men, are disparately impacted in our society. We need to examine the facts on their own terms rather than interpreting through the lens of unfounded assumptions about economic injustice.

  • Tyler Curtis works as a lender at a community bank in Missouri. He also holds an undergraduate degree in Economics from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.