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Is the Wage Gap Women's Choice?

Last month on Wage Equity Day, politicians demanded new laws to protect women from what they say is an unfair pay scale. We hear about the so-called wage gap over and over, and many studies have found that women make about 75 cents for every dollar a man earns. Activists and politicians say the pay difference is all about sexism.

"No matter how hard women work, or whatever they achieve in terms of advancement in their own professions and degrees, they will not be compensated equitably," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Activists have convinced some young women that even if they work the same hours, have the same education and do the same type of work, they will be paid less than men.

But how could this be possible? Suppose you're an employer doing the hiring. If a woman does equal work for 25 percent less money, why would any employer ever hire a man?

Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, gave me this simple answer: "Because they like to hire men, John. They like to hire people like themselves and they darn sure like to promote people like themselves," she said.

In her new book, "Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It," Burk concludes what we've all heard. "Women make less. Even if it's the exact same job title and it is the exact same work and the experience is comparable," she said.

But author Warren Farrell, who spent about 15 years going over U.S. Census statistics and research studies, said Burk is wrong. Farrell's research found that the wage gap exists not because of sexism, but because more men are willing to do certain kinds of jobs. "The average full-time working male works more than a full-time working female," Farrell said.

Farrell illustrates his findings at lectures by asking men and women to stand up in answer to a series of questions about their job choices, such as whether they work more than 40 hours a week, or have held a job that has required them to work outdoors, or if they have 20 years experience in their current occupation.

Again and again, more men stand up.

Different job choices are why men earn more, Farrell says in his new book, "Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap -- and What Women Can Do About It."

"The women themselves say they're far more likely to care about flexibility. The men say I'm far more likely to care about money," Farrell said.

What about the fact that almost all of the biggest money makers -- the company bosses -- are men? There are some female chief executive officers making big bucks, but they are the exception. Isn't that discrimination?

"We have been suckered into believing that because there are more men at the top than women at the top, that this is a result of discrimination against women. That's been the misconception. It's all about trade-offs. You earn more money, you usually sacrifice something at home," Farrell said.

If they aren't discriminating, why do companies give out multimillion-dollar settlements? "They're afraid ... of getting publicity for a year saying that they're anti-female, so you settle," Farrell said.

Decades ago, Farrell was a man who joined Gloria Steinem in feminist protests. He's the only man to have been elected three times to the board of the National Organization for Women. "I used to wear a '59 cent' pin to protest the fact that men earned a dollar for each 59 cents that women earned for the same work. And then I asked myself one day: "If men are earning a dollar, maybe I'll go out and start an all-female firm and I'll be able to produce products for 59 cents that male firms are producing for a dollar," he said.

He came to realize that there's something wrong with the statistic.

Farrell combed through jobs data and found that higher-paying jobs are more likely to require longer commuting times, safety risks, frequent travel, long hours and other factors that, on his tests, led the men to stand while the women sat.

Those jobs pay more because fewer people want to do them. It's not sexism. It's just supply and demand. In some fields, like office jobs -- finance for example -- women make as much or more than men.

However, activists say America needs a law like the one passed in Ontario where employers must rate every job to make sure women are paid fairly.

Companies say the law is complicated and costly. "We spent months, spent thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars on this project to do a 3-cent adjustment that may not have even been necessary," said Sheldon Caplan, who works for a Canadian company that sews and sells sofa cushions.

While the law may have helped some women increase their wages, a broader study in The Canadian Journal of Economics found the law has had "no effect on the wage gap."

We don't need a law, Caplan said. Any company that discriminates by sex or anything other than work ability will have higher costs. "I hope my competitors discriminate. I want my competitors to discriminate because then they will go out of business," he said.

But the wage-gap myth persists, Farrell said, because nobody wants to confront it.

Feminists and activists now see Farrell as the bad guy, but he's just saying what's true.

"Women and men look at their life, and women say, 'What do I need? Do I need more money, or do I need more time?' And women are intelligent enough to say, I need more time. And so women lead balanced lives, men should be learning from women."

But some politicians say we should import the bureaucratic mess Ontario has created?

Give me a break.

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