Tearing Down the Gender-Inequality Obsession

"The Nadella incident, as trifling as it is, offers a good opportunity to look at the so-called gender gap in American private-sector pay. "

When eighteen-year-old William McKinley, future president of the United States, was mustered into the Union army at the dawn of the Civil War, he came under the tutelage of a wizened military veteran who gave him some sterling advice. “Now, William,” he said, “ …you can easily make yourself so valuable to your superior that he cannot get along without you. Do little things not exactly under your supervision. Be conscientious in all your duties, and be faithful, and it will not be long until your superior officer will consider you an indispensable assistant.”

Private McKinley took that counsel to heart—even, on his own initiative, braving a harrowing onslaught of enemy fire during the Antietam battle to transport water and victuals to an army unit pinned down for hours without food or drink. For that act of bravery and initiative, he was commissioned as a lieutenant, and later exploits of a similar nature got him promoted further. He ended the war as a twenty-two-year-old major, well on his way toward a noteworthy career as a lawyer and politician. Nearly forty years later, McKinley offered the same venerable counsel to a nephew entering the military. “Do your whole duty,” he admonished. “Obey all the orders of your superior; be kind to those who are subordinate to you.” That’s the way to get ahead, he suggested.

This small vignette from American history comes to mind with reports of what happened recently to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella after he expressed similar sentiments at a conference of women in technology. Asked what advice he would give to women who are uncomfortable asking for a raise, he replied in part:

“It’s not really about asking for the raise but 0knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. And that, I think, might be one of the additional superpowers that, quite frankly, women who don’t ask for raises have. Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back. Because somebody’s going to know: ‘That’s the kind of person that I want to really give more responsibility to.’ And in the long-term efficiency, things catch up.”

Within minutes, the victimhood police were on him like a chicken on a June bug. Within hours, Nadella accepted abject humiliation and nullified his previous counsel. He tweeted: “Was inarticulate re how women should ask for raise. Our industry must close gender pay gap so a raise is not needed because of a bias.” Later he sent an email to all Microsoft employees: “I answered that question completely wrong. Without a doubt I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap….If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.”

The Nadella incident, as trifling as it is, offers a good opportunity to look at the so-called gender gap in American private-sector pay. Liberal politicians and activists from President Obama on down insist there is a discriminatory income disparity in America between men and women, that women earn less than their male counterparts for the same work. This perception is embraced with the tenacity of a she-wolf protecting her cubs. It is unshakable, and those who don’t absorb this perception come under withering criticism of the kind that greeted Nadella’s commonplace observation that the best way to get ahead in business is to impress your bosses with high performance.

Now, once upon a time there was indeed widespread discrimination against women in corporate pay policies. This was not because of any conspiratorial evil inherent in men or business executives or bosses. It was a product of attitudes and sensibilities embedded in the culture of the nation. It was thought that women have a primary responsibility for family care, and it seemed natural that societal mores and practices would reflect this. Even after the late 1960s, when feminism became a serious political force and led to new legal sanctions against discrimination, these attitudes and practices dissipated only slowly.

But they did dissipate, and a long-term workplace revolution occurred. More women pursued jobs outside the home, and over time they rose naturally through corporate and organizational hierarchies. Whatever disparities exist now because of lingering effects of the old sensibilities, they are small—and are dissipating further as more and more women supplant more and more men in higher and higher positions.

The statistic seized upon by the issue’s thought police is the 77 percent trope—that women, on average, earn only 77 percent of what men earn. This is a canard. It measures merely the difference between the average earnings of all men and all women working full time. It makes no allowance for differences in occupation, job description, education, job tenure or hours worked per week. Many studies have concluded that, when these factors are thrown in, the differential represents more like 5 to 7 percentage points. As the Washington Post noted in debunking an Obama reference to this pay-disparity “problem,” “There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women…make it difficult to make simple comparisons.”

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