Measuring salary inequalities between men and women does not allow us to measure the injustices that potentially exist between them. Every year, the feminist newsletter The Glorious announces a date from which women would work “for free” in France. From November 6 at 11:25 a.m., men would continue to be paid, to the detriment of gender equality. Is it true ?
To calculate the pay gap between men and women, Les Glorieuses compared gross hourly income, all sectors combined, in companies with more than 10 employees: women receive 15.4% less than men. Reduced to the number of working days in France, this gives 39 days, hence the date of November 6. “In 2023, women could stop working on November 6 at 11:25 a.m. if they were paid an average hourly rate similar to men while earning what they earn today (still on average) throughout the year” , explain Les Glorieuses.
A very perfectible calculation
This method is imperfect, because it does not allow us to distinguish between injustice and inequality. Firstly, and the authors recognize this, the figure Eurostat on which they are based is an “unadjusted” average. It does not take into account the impact of interruptions or part-time work on a career, the over-representation of women in certain sectors, or hiring qualifications. It is difficult, without this granularity, to conclude that women work “for free”, nor that it is unfair.
The Glorieuses mention two others statistics. The first is 4%, the unjustified salary gap, for equal positions, working hours and responsibilities. This is already more than three times less than the figure used for November 6. Second figure: a gap of 24% for a full-time equivalent, all sectors combined, which “can be explained by the gender distribution of professions”. Here too, it is difficult to cry injustice or accuse social conditioning: in France, the orientation towards less lucrative sectors is less the result of discrimination than of a choice. The orientation of women towards “stereotypical” feminine professions is much more widespread in egalitarian countries less patriarchal cultures, unlike less egalitarian countries where STEM (acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) sometimes represent life buoys for women.
“We are demanding our economic rights,” say Les Glorieuses. In reality, the overwhelming majority of women in France, and more broadly in Europe, are paid commensurate with their efforts and in a manner comparable to men. Despite these improvements, a gap remains, and can be explained by residual discrimination – penalized by public policies – but above all by personal choices.
To truly fight against injustices, we must be able to distinguish between what is voluntary choice and what is structural constraint.
Maternity, the first obstacle to equal pay
Eurostat gives another more enlightening statistic. First, wage gaps are much lower among young people. For certain countries such as Finland, Slovakia or France, the gaps double between the age group of under 25 and that of 25-34 years. On the other hand, others economic inequality indices between the sexes agree on an almost systematic brake: maternity. The increase in gaps with age is explained by the “career interruptions” that women experience more. This obstacle to equal pay is observed regardless of the degree of progressivism in a society. In Denmark, one of the most egalitarian countries there iswomen’s income falls after the first child and never completely correct themselves. A phenomenon that is not observed in men with children or women without children. To resume the words from L’Express journalist and essayist Laetitia Strauch-Bonart*, “there is not so much inequality between men and women as between men and mothers”.
In short, not all women work for free, and this is less about discrimination than a temporary reversal of priorities between career and family. The very recent Nobel Prize winner in economics Claudia Goldin, in her book Career and Family (Princeton University Press, 2021), reports that, in an unprecedented way on a historical scale, women today can reconcile career and family, but it is still they who pay more of the price. In France, this calculation can end up costing women dearly, especially in the event of separation, they who are in 85% of cases at the head of single-parent families. To explain salary inequalities, we have to look less in the world of work than at home, where men invest less.
The price to be paid by mothers is more expensive in certain professions than in others. Claudia Goldin identifies the most significant gaps in so-called “greedy” professions, executive jobs that reward flexibility and time availability, such as that of lawyer or finance executive. Motherhood represents a greater loss of opportunity in certain sectors, and this is where the injustice lies.
Claudia Goldin proves her thesis by analyzing the professions of lawyer and pharmacist. Women lawyers, in hourly wages, are losing out, and are struggling to close the gap with their counterparts. The hourly salary of pharmacists is equivalent to that of pharmacists throughout their career. This equality can be explained by the standardization of working methods in the profession which make workers interchangeable and schedules predictable.
Thus, when two parents work in “greedy professions”, one must, to respond to calls from the nursery, give up the availability valued in these professions. In most cases, it is a function assigned to the mother, who will see her career slowed down. This organization of work excludes by default women from careers as lucrative as for men.
Good reasons to strike
Based on their biased calculation, Les Glorieuses recommends three measures. The first, a principle of equal conditionality: not allocating public funds to structures where equal pay would not be respected. If the evaluation criterion is that of the salary gap, all things being equal, this is already the case for the vast majority. And the Danish example clearly shows that public policies on equality are not enough to close this gap. It would be better to change the world of work towards fewer “greedy jobs”.
The second measure calls for “an economic revaluation of all female-dominated professions.” The targeted professions are mainly those in “care”: 90.4% of nurses are women, 87.7% of midwives, and 65.7% of teachers. Here again, the over-representation of one sex does not prejudge injustice: there is, for women, no “forbidden” profession. On the other hand, even if these functions deserve to be upgraded, there is an inevitable tension between public services for all (health, school) and the upgrading of feminized professions. And that’s another debate.
Finally, the third measure is entirely relevant: “support equivalent parental leave for both parents”. And the authors cite Claudia Goldin, who calls for the involvement of fathers in the education of children and domestic work, to stem the loss of opportunity linked to career interruptions for women. While waiting for true equal leave, it is perhaps on this question that a principle of equal conditionality (tax incentives to companies which give equal leave for example) would be useful.
As of November 6, women do not work “for free”. On the other hand, the weight of family life weighs more on mothers’ income. That a woman earns less because she makes less career-oriented choices is not injustice in itself. But if the goal is to target injustices, we must encourage greater involvement of fathers in domestic life, and a more agile labor market. There are therefore good reasons to strike, but not necessarily on November 6.
* From France, This country that we thought we knewLaetitia Strauch-Bonart, Perrin, Les Presses de la Cité, 2022.