Phyllis Schlafly’s recent article “Fact and Fallacies About Paycheck Fairness” proves at least one point – women can’t do math. In her article, she argues that gender wage inequality is a good thing because it supports the institution of marriage, since women on average marry higher earning men and men on average marry higher earning women. More on this later. But first, she writes, “Suppose the pay gap between men and women were magically eliminated. If that happened, simple arithmetic suggests that half of women would be unable to find what they regard as a suitable mate.” Except this math doesn’t add up.
In actuality, almost 30% of married working women outearn their husbands. So her argument that on average women appear prefer men who outearn them is true on average but this doesn’t mean for every person. Her math that half women can’t find a suitable spouse doesn’t count these breadwinner women. If wages were equalized between the genders, then half of women would find a husband who earn more, and 30% would find a husband who earn less, and the other 20% would need to alter their preferences in response to the available basket of “goods,” which is what competitive market economics would probably suppose is what they would do.
This is a problem with many popular citations of economics and statistics. Just because on average married women are outearned by their husbands, this doesn’t mean that all married women are actually outearned by their husbands. It really only means that 70% of married women (no small amount, but also not all married women) are outearned by their husbands right now. Even if 51% of married women were outearned by their husbands, her statement about women’s revealed preference for a higher earning partner would still technically be true, but highly misleading.
Which leads me to another point. Let’s not conflate women’s revealed preference for a higher earning partner with a true preference for a higher earning partner. If men earn more because of persistent gender discrimination, whether it be overtly paying a woman less for the same job or sorting women into lower paying occupations, then it’s just more likely that married women will have a higher earning husband if they were partnered randomly.
A stylized way to approach this is to look at the changes in divorce rates over time. We’ve all heard that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Again, this is true on average, but not true for all populations. Betsey Stevensen and Justin Wolfers found that divorce rates have actually been declining for the past 25 years among younger populations (and obviously controlling for age, so married 30 year olds in 1980 got divorced at a higher rate than married 30 year olds right now). So it actually appears as though there is a higher divorce rate for my parents’ generation where there was even greater earnings disparity in marriages, compared to my generation. My own anecdotal proof is my parents who will be celebrating 40 years of marriage this summer, with many of those years being a female breadwinner marriage.
One could go on picking apart Schlafly’s argument forever. The good thing is that people are doing this. One thing does add up, the backlash against her argument is greater than the support for it, so the overall conversation has turned toward discussing why women should have the opportunity to earn as much as men and marry whoever they will, regardless of old fashioned and disproven ideas of traditional marriage.
One question remains: is Phyllis Schlafly some sort of feminist double agent if her dated and false ideas about gender are so easily argued against?
p.s. Just because Schlafly can’t do math, women on average can totally do math. They’re mostly just told they can’t.