Open letter to Jillian Berman

This is an open letter to Jillian Berman on her article “It’s a Fact that Women Get Paid Less Than Men. Stop Debating.”

(Trigger warning: Facts, jokes)

I’m not sure when “fact checker” became a dirty word. I guess it had already happened by the time Jillian Berman called out the evil fact checkers who “pounced” on Barack Obama for using the mathematically irresponsible “Women earn 77 cents on men’s dollar” statistic in a 2014 SOTU address. How dare they.

Before I go on, Jillian, I acknowledge that you asked everyone to “stop debating.” But I (helped by some of the world’s preeminent gender and economics scholars) am not going to stop debating. The points you made in your article portray American women as whiny at best and completely incompetent at worst. For me, that’s worth fighting against. Even if you’ve heard words like these from non-feminists before, I’m asking you to give me a chance—I believe that there is at least one thing in my response that you don’t know, and maybe if you open your mind instead of trying to close my mouth, we can talk. If you still want to silence me, stop reading now.

In the opening of your piece, you struggled for a good argument against Christina Hoff Sommers’s piece “No, Women Don’t Make Less Money Than Men,” so you decided to attack her “self-awareness” instead. The offending sentence “with no self-awareness” was: “No one knows if the five cents is a result of discrimination or some other subtle hard-to-measure difference between male and female workers.”

You wondered what that “subtle hard-to-measure difference” might be if not institutional sexism. It’s a good question—one that Harvard economist Claudia Goldin discusses. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll summarize:

“A better answer [than sexism],” Claudia Goldin writes, “is [that] firms reward individuals who differ in their desire for various amenities.… Workplace flexibility is a complicated, multidimensional concept,” and “a flexible schedule often comes at a high price.” She concludes, “This matter is not just a woman’s issue.” When everyone has more workplace flexibility, women won’t be crowded out by men who are not considered valuable at home and can therefore spend more “face time” at work and inconvenient hours on call. With more workplace flexibility, Goldin believes that the gap between observationally identical men and women will close.

You also seemed unhappy with Sommers’s claim that women choose lower-paid professions. You claimed that part of the institutional sexism that leads to labor market segregation is “a lack of supportive policies,” but that doesn’t seem right. After all, Norway tops the Gender Gap Index (GGI) and is considered one of the most gender-equal countries by every organization that measures these things. Yet, Norway has one of the most gender-segregated labor markets on earth. Women in Norway have more choice—choice that is staunchly defended by their government—than women anywhere else, yet they exercise it to remain in stereotypically female professions.

But let’s talk about the reality that’s keeping that 77-cent figure alive: for some reason, women end up in lower-paid college majors, professions, and career paths. Is it because of sexism? I’ll go through the points you made one at a time.

1. “High paying, traditionally male-dominated fields, like engineering and computer science, tend to be hostile places for women.”

The sources you cited are based on anecdotes from individuals who have left STEM. What about the STEM women who are still going strong? I’d reckon they’re not complaining about sexism because when you look at the facts, there’s no sexism: there is no difference between male and female engineers’ paychecks. That’s a fact. Perhaps, Jillian, you vilified “fact checkers” because you are allergic to facts?

2. “The path away from those high-paying fields starts in school.”

So does the path toward them. Hundreds of female-only STEM scholarships are at girls’ fingertips, starting in grade school. In a world where every tween seems to have an iPhone, this encouragement is not hard to find. But where’s the male-only social work scholarship?

You also wrote that it’s “hard” for girls to pick STEM careers when “there are few female computer scientists and engineers for them to look up to.” If women are truly equal to men, we can man up and claim what we have an uncontested legal right to. Why do girls need women to “look up to” in order to succeed? Why can’t a girl “look up to” Google CEO Larry Page? Are you suggesting that we are so handicapped that we can’t imagine ourselves doing well without a specifically female role model to point to?

I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of focusing on STEM in schools and portraying those fields as interesting, socially relevant, and productive. But that positive image should be targeted to all students, not just girls, because all students should be equal.

The problem with your arguments is that even when women are encouraged to enter STEM majors, they’re more likely to leave them.

Further, there’s no reason to assume that in an ideal society, both genders are equally represented in all fields. If women don’t want to be engineers, why force them? (Norway doesn’t, and it’s not just the most gender-equal country—it’s also the happiest).

3. Fields that tend to be more attractive to women, like teaching, social work and other “caretaking” professions are typically lower paying—in part because they’re considered “women’s work.”

The jobs you list here are intrinsically non-profit-generating jobs. Teachers depend on tax dollars, and they earn a median salary of $55,360 (secondary school) or $53,590 (primary school). By comparison, police officers, mostly men, also get paid in tax dollars. They earn $56,130, with the added bonus of a 19 per 100,000 on-the-job death rate. Nurses, who are generally female “caretakers” and whom you neglected to list, earn nearly double the average American income.

4. A lot of women have to take breaks from working—in part because of a lack of supportive public policies.

I’m not sure why it never occurs to you to think that perhaps women don’t “have to” take time off. They might, just maybe, “like to” spend time with their kids.

Culturally, as former feminist activist Warren Farrell discusses in his book The Myth of Male Power, women can expect to be supported by men. They can choose a work–life balance that allows them to be mothers as well as workers, whereas men who prioritize fatherhood over their careers are laughed at.

5. Even when women have and make “the choice” to do everything exactly the same as men they still come out behind.

If “behind” means being able to spend more time with their kids than fathers do, then yes, women are behind. If “behind” means dominating the safest and most emotionally fulfilling jobs, then yes, they’re behind. But I don’t think the Norwegian women who have chosen stereotypically female professions feel “behind.” I think they’re just doing what they want to do.

Feminists have become fixated on wages as the sole measure of a man or woman’s value. But that’s wrong. Married men, for example, may have their wives to thank for 17 additional years of life. You can’t put a dollar sign in front of that, but I’d say it’s pretty damn valuable.

Entirely outside of my professional abilities, I value myself as a social activist (thanks, A Voice for Men and Honey Badger Brigade), a solver of problems, a cultivator of music, a creator and writer, a loving friend/sister/daughter to people dear to me, and (I hope) a sensitive and supportive partner to the man I live with. All of these things are part of me, and no matter my net worth, I am not and never will be “behind.”

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