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On Equal Pay Day, Why The Gender Gap Still Exists


President Obama has declared today Equal Pay Day. There's a reason it falls on April 12. As the proclamation says, today marks how far into the new year women would have to work in order to earn the same as men did in the previous year. Women, on average, make 79 cents for every dollar men earn. Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin has looked into the reasons for this, and you say the reason is not primarily discrimination. Is that right?

CLAUDIA GOLDIN: Well, I'd rather not use the word discrimination. Much of the difference has to do with what I call the high cost of temporal flexibility.

SHAPIRO: High cost of temporal flexibility...


SHAPIRO: Parse that for us.

GOLDIN: I certainly will. Disproportionately, women, particularly those who are mothers or who are taking care of others, would like greater predictability in their hours. They would like less on-call hours. They would like fewer periods of long hours. Well, those jobs are often the jobs - the ones that have the longer hours, the less predictability - those are the ones that are often the higher income occupations.

So temporal flexibility is giving someone the ability not just to work fewer hours but to work their hours and not get a big hit for it or to work hours that are more predictable. A physician, let's say, could work 50 hours a week but work the days that they would like to work and not be on call. They'll probably get less than someone who is working the graveyard shift or who was on call, et cetera. And that's true in a lot of fields. And it's also as true at the top as it is at the bottom.

SHAPIRO: Does that suggest that if you compare women who are not caretakers, who aren't raising children or looking after elderly parents, to men, you will find closer to equal pay than you would in the general population?

GOLDIN: You certainly do find that. And you find that using data for the U.S., and you find that using data for Scandinavian countries that have incredibly good data that you can really follow people year after year. And you can actually follow them at the event of having a child.

SHAPIRO: And then I would also assume that if you compare men who take time off to raise a family to other men, the men who've raised a family are making 79 cents on the dollar. Is that right?

GOLDIN: If we had enough of them, we could probably say that.

SHAPIRO: But to what extent is discrimination also a factor, that women are just paid less than men? If you look at, you know, the Lilly Ledbetter case that came before the Supreme Court, that seemed like an outright case of men make one amount and women make less.

GOLDIN: There's certainly cases of explicit bias. On average, when we measure these differences, we do find a residual gap. And in certain cases, we would feel very comfortable as researchers in saying this is discrimination. But it's very, very hard to do that because it's hard to find the smoking guns.

I'm a historian as well as an economist. And in the past, we really could find smoking guns. People would actually say, I pay women less than men. We don't find that anymore. So we have to really search for the smoking guns. I know they're there. I know that there is discrimination. How much is there - probably not that much.

SHAPIRO: Do you envision a day when the gap will disappear, or is that even a desirable outcome?

GOLDIN: I can certainly envision a day when we reduce the cost of temporal flexibility. When more and more people - and we see this among young people. We can see a growing group that would say that they would like to work their own hours. We have mantras, such as, you know, work-life balance. So in many workplaces, it's not work-family balance, but it's work-life balance. The more people there are like that, the more they are men, the more we're going to move to equality for all.

SHAPIRO: Harvard economist Claudia Goldin studies the gender pay gap. Thanks for joining us.

GOLDIN: Well, thank you very much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.