Despite having slightly higher education levels, women working full-time in the US still only earn 79% of what men do. Stanford economist and author of Sharing the Work, Myra Strober, picks the best books—and one article—that explain the gender wage gap, and, more importantly, show us what we can do about it.
This memoir you’ve written, Sharing the Work (2016), is so incredibly touching. It’s very personal and I think very powerful because you tell the tale of your life—both personal and professional, as an academic economist with a PhD from MIT—in such a matter of fact way. What was your motivation behind writing it?
I realized that I was telling stories about my life in my classes and that the students really enjoyed those stories. Also, as the years went by, I realized that many of the students didn’t know what had happened, for women, in the 1960s and the 1970s. I thought I would write this book for them — and also for people of my generation who did go through similar experiences and have them be able to relate to my story and rethink their own lives.
Do you think women are aware enough, now, of what’s going on?
I think women are aware of what’s going on, but I think they don’t really have much sense of the history — as I myself didn’t when I started out. I talk, in my book, about going to the library and discovering Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s work, and realizing that, despite all the education I had had, I had never even heard of her. I think many young people today don’t really know what the feminist movement in the 1970s was like and what it was about — and how much they have benefited from the struggles that we had in those years.
Are men and women equal now, when it comes to work?
No, they are not. It’s still the case, in the US, that women who work full-time earn about 79% of what men full-time earners get. This is despite the fact that women in the workforce now have slightly more education than men in the workforce. The labour force participation rates of women are also still not as high as those of men, because mothers of young children leave the workforce because they can’t find a way to combine work and family.
They’re also doing different kinds of jobs, aren’t they?
Yes. I call this ‘occupational segregation.’ Men and women are still not in the same occupations, and even when they are in the same occupations—for example, physicians—they are in different specialities. Women are in the lowest paying specialities, so in the US, that’s paediatrics and psychiatry. Women are much less frequently found in the higher-paying specialities. It is also true in other kinds of occupations. Women tend to work in bus driving within the city — which pays much less than over-the-road bus driving. The data show that about a third of the earnings gap between women and men is accounted for by occupational variables.
Another almost 20% of the gap is accounted for by industry variables. Women and men work in different industries, where men work in the higher-paying industries. Those two variables: what occupation you are in and what industry you are in account for about half of the earnings gap.
Then, men and woman still have a difference in their work experience because more women have left the labour force for some period of time to raise their children. That accounts for another 14% of the earnings gap.
So we know why women earn less. It is not so much about a man and woman working next to each other in adjacent cubicles and doing the same job and earning different salaries—although that certainly happens too—but it’s about the differences in occupation, industry, and experience.
So, basically, the battle for women to be paid the same as a man to do the same job is one that was won—well, as you say, not totally won, but one into which significant inroads were made—in your generation?
Yes, except that it is also the case that men are more likely to be promoted than women. They do start out at similar salaries. If you look at the data for young people who are first coming onto the labour market, there’s very little difference in the earnings of men and women. The earnings differential develops as time goes on, as men are promoted and women are not, and as women take time out of the workforce. There really is a Mommy penalty now. Women who have no children, by and large, earn the same as men do. Women who have children, whether or not they’ve taken time out of the workforce, earn less.
Let’s talk more about these issues as we go through the books you’ve recommended. So, the first one you’ve chosen is Getting to 50/50 (2009), which is by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober, who, as you mentioned, is your daughter-in-law. I like the subtitle ‘How working parents can have it all.’ Can working parents have it all?
Nobody can have it all. As an economist, I bristle when somebody talks about ‘having it all’ because economics is all about trade-offs. We all have the same number of hours in any day and week, and we have to make choices about how we spend our time. So I believe that people—men and women—can have work and family. If they are in a two-career-family, if they are both committed to their own career and to their partner’s career, they can have work and family. But that’s going to mean that they have to make other kinds of trade-offs. Maybe they will exercise less, or have fewer social events on their calendar. Maybe they will see their friends less frequently. Something has to change in order to have work and family, if you were only having work before.
What Sharon and Joanna are arguing is that you can stay in the workforce, even though you have young children. In many ways, their book is revolutionary from an economics point of view. Economists, beginning with Gary Becker, have argued that marriage is like gains from trade. If two countries trade with one another in economic theory, we know that each of them benefit. Becker’s idea is that the same kinds of gains from trade occur in marriage, where men specialize in market work, and women specialize in homework and childrearing. But more and more, that specialization is breaking down. Women are in the labour force, and men are more participatory, particularly in childrearing, but also in housework.
Today, we have what sociologists call ‘companionate marriages’ — rather than marriages where the partners are looking for gains from trade. In the book, they are describing this new kind of marriage and arguing forcefully that it can work with two people having careers and a family as long as they try to get to 50/50 in the home, which means that their goal is to share housework and childcare equally. This is not to say that that happens every day or even every week. Perhaps it never happens, but that is the goal. They are trying to achieve a situation where children regard both parents as their primary parents, not simply their Mom.
They also argue that it’s not great for the relationship between the father and the kids, if he’s always out at work.
Many men in my generation—who did concentrate solely on their jobs and gave their family short shrift—say, today, that when they see their sons or sons-in-law participating much more as active fathers, they see what those benefits are because those younger men have a much closer relationship with their children.
But Sharon and Joanna are arguing that particularly women who have a great deal of education—whose husbands are high earners and who drop out of the workforce because the family does not need their income—should stay in the workplace when they become mothers. Their research—as well as my own research—shows that often women leave the workplace to be fulltime mothers, in part because they want to be with their children fulltime — but also very much because they cannot find the flexibility at work that they are looking for.
“Women who have no children, by and large, earn the same as men do. Women who have children…earn less.”
My own work was on Stanford graduates from the class of 1980. So many of the women talked about their sadness at having to leave the workforce because they simply could not find flexibility. That book is called The Road Winds Uphill All the Way. It compares the graduates of Stanford with the graduates of Tokyo University. The women from Tokyo University also dropped out of the workplace because they couldn’t find flexible arrangements.
The American childcare system is non-existent. There is no system. It’s every woman for herself, every family for itself. In the US, we don’t even have paid family leave except in some states and in some companies. We certainly don’t have very much paid leave for fathers. For mothers, the combination of no paid leave, grave difficulties looking for childcare and lack of flexibility in the job, means that they will leave the workforce.
They then have less work experience when they come back, and the data show that women who leave the workplace pay a penalty, for the rest of their work life, of around 20% of earnings. Also, although people think that the decision to drop out of the workforce is a private one—and of course it is a private one—it is also one of those decisions that has what economists call ‘externalities.’ It affects many people indirectly. It affects the other, more junior people at work who see that it is not possible to combine work and family at that particular workplace. It affects institutions of higher education who see that their graduates are leaving the workplace. This is particularly a problem for professional schools — law schools and business schools. Interestingly, the medical profession in the US has figured out how to provide flexibility for women with children. It is OK for physicians to go part-time in many work settings. That is not the case in law, or in business, or in academia, and so women drop out. This has effects not only on their own earnings, but on the women who are coming up after them.
It‘s disappointing that academia is in the same category because you’d have thought academia would be flexible.
Academia is more flexible for community college appointments and for what we call ‘adjunct’ appointments, where you can teach on an hourly basis. But if you want a tenure track or tenured position in a research university or a doctoral university, there’s no such thing as a part-time career.
Ok so maybe I’m a prime example of the kind of woman the authors are talking about. My husband is in finance. I do have a graduate degree, but I’ve always done journalism, which is fairly low paying. I suppose I should be going out to work, but the financial incentives don’t seem great for me to do so. Why do Sharon and Joanna think that it would be good for me to go out and work?
I don’t think they would say anything about your working in the way that you do. I think they would argue that journalism, indeed, has the kind of flexibility that many people are looking for. You’ve been able to keep your hand in your field. You have not had to drop out. But if you were working at a law firm, or working at your husband’s workplace, you probably would have had to make a decision to either stay in full-time and spend less time with your family or leave altogether.
Shall we talk about Claudia Goldin’s piece next? This is “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter” from the American Economic Review (2014, 104 (4); 1091-1119).
Yes, so this article relates neatly to what we were just talking about. Goldin is a very influential economist. She wrote this article for her presidential address to the American Economic Association. What she said was that women earn less than men because they desire ‘certain amenities’ at work, by which she means flexibility. Her argument is that women are earning less than men because they are paying a price for that flexibility. And she shows that men and women start out equally in the workforce, but that they get more unequal over time though, as I mentioned earlier, the earnings of women who have no children look more like men’s.
The flexibility she talks about is the number of hours of work, the precise time of work, the predictability of work and of travel, and the ability to schedule one’s own hours. So any time off for MBAs is heavily penalized. Flexible work allows part-time work, as in your case. She is arguing that, in order for women to earn salaries more like men’s, the entire workplace is going to have to be changed.
I like the introduction where she says that ‘the solution does not lie in government regulation or getting men to do more around the house, although that would be nice.’
I disagree with her about government regulation. I think that if we had a national policy of paid leave for new parents—men and women—that would go a long way toward providing some of the flexibility that is needed. And if we had a national childcare system, where childcare would be subsidised for people who can’t afford it, and we knew that it was high quality, with trained childcare workers who are reasonably paid, that would go a long way toward making it possible for women to stay in the workplace and to take jobs that are perhaps less flexible on a daily basis.
But in terms of changing the workplace, I love the quote in Getting to 50/50 by the former CEO of Xerox, Anne Mulcahy, who said, ‘Businesses need to be 24/7, individuals don’t.’ So companies that need to run on a 24/7 basis need to figure out how to organize work so that people who work for them don’t have to be available 24/7. And I believe what Claudia Goldin is saying is that that is the kind of change that has to take place. And that really is not amenable to government regulation. That, I think, will come when more men say, ‘We want flexibility at the workplace as well.’ I’m very proud. The class I used to teach at the business school was called ‘Women and Work.’ Now I call it ‘Work and Family,’ and almost 40% of the students are men. They are puzzling over how to make their workplaces more flexible when they have the power to do that.
Let’s take an industry which is very, very unfriendly in that regard, let’s say what my husband does, M&A, which involves working on deals. Is there scope in an industry like this to make the break between the 24/7 company and the 24/7 individual?
Yes, I believe there is scope for that. Right now, when someone in finance is working for a client, that client wants that particular individual 24/7. But if there were two partners working on the deal, and the client knew that either one of the partners would be a good person to talk to, and the client knew that the partners were communicating with one another on a regular basis, that would go a long way to changing the demands on any one individual.
It might even lead to a better deal.
Yes, it might, because there would be two brains working on the problem rather than one.
And because they’re both getting a good rest.
Certainly researchers have found that rest is important in medicine. It used to be that doctors in training worked 80 hours a week or more. It became very clear that they were doing a better job when they were getting adequate sleep at night.
Let’s go on to your next book, Debra Meyerson’s Tempered Radicals (2001). I know from your memoir that you consider yourself a tempered radical, so tell us a bit about what it is and how it works.
I chose this book because Meyerson brings the notion of social change down to individual people. ‘Tempered radicals’ are people who want to rock the boat, but also want to stay in the boat. They are not the kind of people who agitate from outside — those are other kinds of radicals. Tempered radicals are within the organization, within the workplace, and working to gain the trust of people in power and to make change, not just for themselves, but for everybody in the workplace. They resist quietly, if you will.
Meyerson quotes Robert Kennedy in her introduction, and the notion of the importance and rarity of moral courage. I think it takes moral courage to be a tempered radical, to realize that you may put your job at risk if you agitate too much and you’re seen as a troublemaker. And yet you are unable to keep quiet because you see that change is so important.
“For women to earn salaries more like men’s, the entire workplace is going to have to be changed.”
A tempered radical is not the same as a whistleblower. A whistleblower goes outside of the company or organization and blows the whistle on those people. A tempered radical blows the whistle within the company, creates organizations and alliances to agitate from within. For women trying to make change for women at work, these alliances very much include men. Debra’s book is about how to make change at work and how, as she puts it, to use your difference—the fact that you are a woman or have some other difference— to inspire change in the workplace. I think it is a very important book.
And quite empowering, isn’t it? Because anybody going to work can get going with it, you don’t have to be CEO to bring about change.
What I talk about in my memoir is how it was possible for me to figure out how to make change at Stanford University. I was only an assistant professor when I became the founding director of the Stanford Centre for Research on Women. I was making larger changes at the university, I hoped, by sponsoring research on women, that others would understand some of the difficulties we were experiencing at Stanford. It was also about training students in the next generation to understand the issues for women at work.
The centre is now called the Clayman Institute because it was endowed by a former business school student, Michelle Clayman. For me, now, to see that institute flourishing is a great reward for being a tempered radical at a very early stage. I had to convince the provost and the president of Stanford that this was an organization that they needed to fund, sponsor, and support. In my memoir, I describe in detail how I was able to do that, how I amassed male allies and female allies, as well as the foundation world to give me money. That’s the kind of change, I think, that tempered radicals make. It is a hard job to make social change, but it is very doable and in the end, it turns out to be very important.
One of the things I liked in your book was when you persuaded somebody to just look at the figures of what men were earning compared to women at Stanford. The university didn’t even know that there was this big difference.
That was later in my career. The provost appointed me to head up a taskforce on recruitment and retention of women faculty because Stanford was not doing well, as compared to our peer institutions, and he was concerned about this and wanted to know why. So we did some interviews of young women and men, and what we learned was that many women were leaving because they were paid less than male colleagues. So I went to him and I said that the taskforce he had appointed needed to look at the data on earnings. He said, ‘Oh, we can’t do that. Salary is private information’ — because Stanford is a private institution. At public institutions, salaries are made public. So he said, ‘I can’t give you the data, but I’ll take a look at the data.’ And I said, ‘Jerry, you can look at the data any time. You appointed this committee. We need to look at the data.’ He finally agreed not to give us the data, but to create a scatter plot where he plotted salary on the vertical axis and years since PhD on the horizontal axis. The scatter plot was very clear. He put a black circle around all the dots that represented a woman, and you could see all the black circles were at the bottom of the graph—low salaries—and when you looked at the top of the graph, the high salaries, there were hardly any black circles. He was astonished by that pattern, although I was not. He then created a process by which the deans had to make this kind of scatter plot for their own schools and justify to him when women had very low salaries.
Do you think economics is still a very tough profession for women? We’ve now had one female Nobel economics laureate, is the right?
Yes, and we have a woman who is head of the Federal Reserve, and a woman in Europe who is managing director of the International Monetary Fund. So we do have some prominent women in economics. I think economics is much better for women than it was, although again, if you look at faculty members at the more prestigious institutions in economics, they are still relatively few in number.
Why do you think that is?
It is very difficult to be at a research university for anybody, and it is more difficult in occupations that are largely male. They are not as supportive of women in terms of getting invitations to speak at conferences, in terms of getting invitations to co-author papers. It is just more difficult to be a woman in an occupation where women are less than about a third. The research seems to show that there’s a tipping point at about 30-33%. When women reach that level of representation, then they are no longer tokens, they no longer get extra scrutiny, they are seen more as part of the group.
I’ve seen this myself at the Stanford business school. When I first came to the business school in 1972, I was one of the first two women ever to be on the faculty there. There was a grand total of five women students out of a class of 300 or so. Now, women are around a third of the students—some years even a little bit more—and you can see that women students are now considered part of the group, part of the class. The situation for faculty at the business school has progressed less. Women faculty at the business school still stands at about 16%. That means that they are still tokens, still seen as unusual.
You’d think that with you there, things would have changed by now.
I’m not a regular faculty member at the business school. I was turned down for tenure when I came up in the late 1970s and I moved to the school of education and had my career there. Then, as I detail in my memoir, around the year 2000, after all the old guys had died, they asked me to come back and teach. Even though I’m retired now, I still teach my course at the business school.
Are things still moving in the right direction?
If you look at the patterns of change, you can see that a great deal of change occurred in the 1970s, and a little bit into the 1980s. After that, the pace of change really slowed, both in terms of reduction of occupational segregation and the earnings gap. Some people, who have looked at the trajectory, say that it’s going to be another 50 or more years before there’s wage parity. And I haven’t seen any forecast of how long it will take to have parity in fields where men are dominant now. There would have to be an enormous amount of change with regard to work flexibility before large numbers of women could have careers in the top universities, the top medical centres and in finance, these bastions of male occupations which, as we have said, are very inflexible and provide very little opportunity to combine work and family.
Why do you think change slowed down after that period? Is that to do with women being less focused on pushing for change?
No, and this is where I disagree with Claudia Goldin. I believe that the legislative changes in the late 60s and early 70s—and particularly the executive orders that were signed by President Lyndon Johnson—had a tremendous impact on bringing women into occupations that were closed to them and in reducing the earnings gap. Once the Reagan administration began, there was very little change. The affirmative action executive orders were simply not enforced, and there was very little happening with regard to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Some cases were brought, but there wasn’t the kind of governmental push for change that we had had earlier. And so I think if the election in the US turns out to bring people in who do care about women, we will likely see a lot of progress because those executive orders will be enforced, and perhaps new executive orders will be issued, and there will be a climate where we can look for change.
In 1971, President Nixon vetoed a bill that had passed congress and was brought to him for his signature that would have established a national system of childcare. He vetoed it saying that it would ‘weaken the family.’ That was his wording, because he felt that women belonged at home, raising their children. And we have never had a bill that came to the president’s desk again, pushing for childcare. If we had such a bill, and the president signed it, I think we would go a long way toward moving women to more equality.
Let’s talk about Sarumathi Jayaraman’s book next, Behind the Kitchen Door (2013). This seems to come at the issue from a slightly different angle. How does it fit in?
My memoir is an up-close and personal description of how discrimination operates in professional jobs. This book shows the details of how it operates in restaurant jobs. Restaurants are an industry that almost all of us have familiarity with. We go to restaurants frequently. And just as my memoir details how to make change in professional organizations, this book shows how to make change in restaurants. It shows the moral courage that Robert Kennedy talked about. Moral courage must exist for tempered radicals to make change in their organizations, and Saru is a tempered radical. She gives a very disturbing picture of the restaurant industry and tells us how workers in that industry have organized across employers to improve their situation. And the book tells us how we, as consumers of restaurant food, can make a difference for restaurant workers by speaking out and asking questions.
The book is not particularly focused on women in restaurants, is it? It’s about all the badly paid and exploited people who make it possible for you to have your nice meal.
That’s right, but so many women are employed in restaurants. Being a waitress or a waiter is another example of those occupations that are segregated by gender, even though the name is the same. Men tend to be employed in high-priced restaurants and get good tips, and women tend to be employed as waitresses in relatively cheap restaurants. The food is cheap, and they don’t get much in tips at all. It’s another example of segregation.
I chose this book because it shows you that wage setting is a political and cultural process, and not just an economic process. When you study economics and you study how wages are set, you look at supply and demand and you get the incorrect impression that wages are a price like anything else. This book shows you that setting wages is a social practice. It is not just a rational economic calculation of costs and benefits. It is a very detailed look at the wage setting process. The authors argue that wage setting is a human story, not just an impersonal narrative of demand and supply functions. They have a wonderful discussion of the process of job evaluation: how employers figure out which jobs should be highly paid and which jobs should not.
The question of comparable worth, what jobs are worth in society, goes even beyond what employers do. So, for example, in the US, parking lot attendants, people who take your car and park it for you, earn about $20,000 a year. The average earnings of a worker in a childcare centre, who has a similar level of education as a parking lot attendant, earns about $18,000 a year. How can it be that we all value what childcare workers do so much more than what parking lot attendants do, and yet parking lot attendants get paid slightly more?
How does one explain it?
Living Wages, Equal Wages carefully analyses these kinds of questions. Why is it that things that we value get paid so poorly? Teaching in the US is a very poorly paid job. Right now, the teachers who work in San Francisco, which is one of the highest cost of living cities in the country, can’t even afford to live there. The city is now trying to figure out how to provide housing for teachers, and ditto for firefighters. You don’t want your firefighters living in another city, in case you need them urgently. We have all these paradoxes around how wages are set, and Living Wages, Equal Wages really causes us to think about these issues and also to see how we might intervene in this process.
In the case of the teachers and the parking attendant, isn’t it because there’s a lot of people who aspire to be teachers and not as many who want to be parking attendants? Could it not just be a question of supply and demand?
I don’t think it is just a question of supply and demand. I think one of the reasons women are getting more college degrees in the US than men is because there are occupations available to men without college degrees that are simply not available to women. So, for example, women have not made many inroads into the construction industry. There are very few women carpenters, electricians and plumbers. These are all occupations where people can earn a decent wage with relatively low levels of education. Since the executive orders have stopped being enforced, government contractors in construction are not looking to hire more women into those occupations.
Many still believe, in their heart of hearts, that a woman’s place is in the home and that men should be earning wages to support their families. In the US, about 50% of people who’ve been polled about whether the best situation is for women to be at home with their children say, ‘Yes, the best situation is for women to be full-time Moms.’ Of course, those people say, if the husband can’t earn enough, or the woman has no husband, then she has to be at work. But that’s a second best solution for them. As long as there’s a substantial percentage of people who feel that way, society is going to ensure that men have the better jobs.
I believe it is a revolutionary book that everybody needs to read. They present data on how children of working mothers do just fine. In fact, they do better than fine. I remember, when I first started out, there were articles that asked questions such as ‘Do working mothers increase juvenile delinquency?’ You can tell how long ago that was, because we don’t use the term juvenile delinquency any more. People were looking for the ill effects of mothers’ employment. Now people recognize that mothers’ employment can have very positive effects on their children, in addition to providing economic benefits.
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Myra Strober is a labor economist and professor at the School of Education and at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University (by courtesy). Myra was the founding director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research (then the Center for Research on Women). Her memoir is Sharing the Work.
Myra Strober is a labor economist and professor at the School of Education and at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University (by courtesy). Myra was the founding director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research (then the Center for Research on Women). Her memoir is Sharing the Work.
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