'Different But Equal' Feminism Isn't Closing The Pay Gap

In studies across many fields, women work harder and better than men. But proving this sort of difference hasn’t changed our take-home pay.
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Women are better biologically equipped than men to survive mortal hazards, according to recent scholarship. Our right brains have developed to make us more empathetic than men. According to Barack Obama, and teams of researchers, we have a better capacity for leadership. Hillary Clinton says that’s because we are better listeners. It’s rare for a day to pass without a new story on how women are superior to men. Or, in other words, inherently different.

If you were to assert that African-Americans’ ethics are different than white folks’, or that Latinos have “ways of knowing,” you’d quickly, and rightly, be accused of racism. But apply that thinking to gender, and you are asserting a form of feminism.

That form of feminism is not helping us get paid equally. Scholars may insist that women make better bosses and that women work harder than men. But these differences, understood not just as structural but psychological, have yet to be monetized. Has our perception of the gender divide helped maintain the wage gap?

“Has our perception of the gender divide helped maintain the wage gap?”

The differences between men and women have been noted since before two sexes shared a cave. In the early 1980s, they became codified by academic studies and made integral to contemporary feminist theory. That’s when “difference feminism” emerged, with psychologist Carol Gilligan, then at Harvard, as its most influential architect. Gilligan applied research to ideas of moral development, to consider whether existing theories were simply men understanding the minds of men ― and whether women grow up on a different path, which leads to a different set of values.

Since 1982, the maroon paperback of Gilligan’s classic In a Different Voice has been a mainstay of feminist bookshelves, validating what many academics and lay people believed all along: that gender radically shapes our development, making a woman inherently different from a man, not just in a sense of self but in the way we engage with the world.

Gilligan’s work carries a whiff of carob and kasha; it’s a frizzier feminism of an era long past. In the intervening years, our notions of gender have transcended binaries, and even spectrums, to become far more prismatic. But perceived differences persist, parsed in graduate seminars, silk-screened onto graphic tees. A question has often silently accompanied these notions: If we are different, can we be paid the same?

We certainly don’t expect to be. Half of men expect to earn six figures, while only 22% of women do. Not because women don’t work hard. In studies across many fields, from education to health care to financial services, not to mention politics, women work harder than men, with greater focus and commitment. But asserting this sort of difference hasn’t changed our take-home pay, and it doesn’t appear that it will anytime soon.

“In studies across many fields, women work harder than men, with greater focus and commitment. But asserting this sort of difference hasn’t changed our take-home pay.”

Different but equal has been a hard case to make, even for some feminists. Consider Zillah Eisenstein’s recently reissued book, The Female Body and the Law. “‘Sex equality’ is an elusive phrase,” the book begins, speaking of the world beyond jurisprudence. “We must recognize the specificity of the female body. The refocusing necessarily challenges the idea that treating women like men is equivalent to treating men and women equally.”

To many, the solution is not equality but equity: Flexible hours or telecommuting rather than parity. To accommodate our realities rather than change them. More time to do all that unpaid household labor, of which women do 2½ times more than men, in addition to working harder at our jobs, with greater productivity, while capping our career ascents, and losing over $512 billion a year in wage equality. Because we’re different.

There’s plenty of research that tries to make the case that women simply can’t compete at work, because we’re not wired that way. Our different voice, much of this research asserts, predetermines us to be collaborative, not competitive, and we simply choose not to go head-to-head. And yet, other research alleges that women respond better to competition than men do, priming us to be more powerful in the workplace. We’re different, it seems, but differently different, depending on who is looking to test what hypothesis.

Eisenstein’s point about female-bodied difference is largely inarguable, though, when it comes to motherhood, which accounts for a lioness’s share of the gap in wages. I never understood the parameters of my own sex as formidably as when I was pregnant or cared for a newborn. Of course, those parameters exist in the form of lesser paychecks, as well. Motherhood costs. If we choose to have children, each one will cost us 7 percent in unequal wages, whether we work less or not — because our bosses simply assume our hearts aren’t at the office. If we’re women, that is; fathers earn more after they procreate. This, despite research that shows that motherhood doesn’t curb the ambition of most women.

“If we choose to have children, each one will cost us 7 percent in unequal wages, whether we work less or not.”

Difference at home, wearing the mantle of feminism or not, shapes not just our incomes and careers but, for many women, our politics. Over the past decade — which happens to roughly track Hillary Clinton’s presidential runs — studies have shown that married women are likely to vote in the economic interest of their husbands, not themselves. Regardless of how most households — and indeed our entire economy — are increasingly reliant on women’s wage labor, Americans insist on viewing the man as the provider in the family. No matter how much applause they cued, Clinton’s stump remarks about equal pay didn’t have a chance at the ballot box. Not when 71% of women still see men as needing to financially support a family. (Only 27% of white women saw themselves as having this responsibility.)

These entrenched perceptions of gender difference, in which women nurture and men provide, run deep and wide, and they’re not receding. Meanwhile, when women move into a specific workforce, its wages plummet: A study of 50 years of census data showed that increased female participation in a field lessens its value, no matter where it is or what it takes to do it. Instead of monetizing our different voices, we’ve done the opposite.

Our conversation about gender may have been radically reshaped since Gilligan’s heyday, and yet matching power to those differences — politically, socially, economically — remains too often theoretical. Gender differences may arise through nature and nurture, on a spectrum, and be co-created and acculturated, pre-programmed as well as performed. We may worship our mothers, genuflect at so-called girl power.

But we can understand how our society truly values the fairer sex with this simple statistic: that white women make 79 cents, black women make 63 cents and Latinas make 54 cents on the male dollar. And in that difference, there is no fairness at all.

Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.