Equal Pay for Equal Work

This is going to be short… I hope.

Few meaningless slogans infuriate me as much as this one: “Equal pay for equal work.”

Any discussion regarding a pay gap between genders inevitably produces this artificially framed, intentionally ambiguous, piece-of-shit truism. Interpreted in the most literal of senses, it would seem irrefutable. If pay follows from work, then obviously two people performing “equal work” ought to receive “equal pay”. Simple. Brilliant. Even a child can understand. Except for one problem…


It does not exist. It cannot exist, unless humans are robots built to exact specifications (which for the time being at least is not the case). A job description does not equal “work”. The fact that two people have the same job description does not mean that they are performing equal work. Work is something that people (or machines) do to contribute to the completion of a specific task or to provide a specific service. It is something that must necessarily provide value, otherwise it would be unpaid (let’s not get into semantics by addressing slavery or unpaid internships). In a market economy, the value of work is determined by those who pay for it, whether that be employers or consumers. It does not follow that two people who are required to perform the same tasks, necessarily provide the same value to those employers or consumers.

I repeat: It does not follow that two people who are required to perform the same tasks, necessarily provide the same value to those employers or consumers.

This should be self-evident. How many people have stories about their incompetent co-workers? (I know I do).

Does a gender pay-gap exist? Of course it does. Just like there is a pay-gap within each gender (unless you somehow believe that all men/women with the same job title are paid the same wage, and that the only difference is between men and women?).

Still, there is this notion that if all that I’ve said is true, then since there is no inherent performance disparity between genders, then by the magical law of averages everything ought to “even out” and we should not see such a gap. I hope I don’t need to point out the absurdity of this idea. That is not how logic, let alone averages (and their related sampling biases), work.

There are many factors that go into determining how much someone is paid. Chief among them is their chosen career. People have legitimately pointed out that typically higher-paying fields tend to be majority male, while the distribution of the female workforce tends to be weighted more towards lower-paying careers. That’s a real issue. What it is not, though, is clear evidence of inherent sexism in certain professions. That does not mean that sexism doesn’t exist, but it means that there are multitude of reasons that prevent larger numbers of women from moving on to higher-paying industries. Those reasons are not resolved by governments dictating specific pay grades based on job description. Nor is it solved by attempting to artificially inflate representation. For all the talk of inducing more women to choose “STEM” careers or to force businesses to have equal representation in their senior management, I find it a curiosity that there is no equivalent for men in traditionally female-dominated professions such as nursing or teaching. Careful here, lest you suggest that the minimum-wage earning janitor has self-selected himself out of those relatively higher paying fields.

We should not be striving to arbitrarily bridge pay disparities just so we can pat ourselves on the back. We should be striving to punish sexist hiring practices and employment policies to ensure that women have an equal opportunity to men to advance their careers. The two are not equivalent.

How to accomplish that is necessarily a complex question, and one that can’t be answered by populist talking points and shallow promises. A few practical thoughts, however, have been raised. Affordable childcare is extremely difficult to find. That’s a problem. The lack of dedicated paternity leave creates an incentive for employers to favour men over women of child-bearing age (and good luck proving that this was a factor in any specific hiring decision). That’s a problem.

There are things that can be done. Then there’s equal pay for (un)equal work.

So much for “short”. Woops.