Recently, the National Women’s Law Center released a transmisogynistic video starring Sarah Silverman. The video was meant to mock the gender wage gap, and implied that Silverman was earning less because she was being hit with an unfair “vagina tax.” Needless to say, the video completely failed to take into account the experiences of transgender people, and specifically transgender women, in the labor market.
This is a shame because, actually, the experience of transgender women can tell a lot about the role that gender play in the economy. First, transgender women experience a 32% drop in earnings once they transition. This closely mirrors the experiences of many transgender women who attest to being taken less seriously (and transgender men who claim to be taken more seriously) upon transitioning in the workplace. Though there are varying effects by race, it seems important to note here that the same individual, absent any significant change in skill level or education, experiences significantly different treatment, working conditions, and compensation based solely on being perceived as another gender. If that’s not ceteris paribus, I don’t know what is.
If it is true that transgender women experience such vastly different circumstances before and after transitioning, then it seems reasonable that this insight might have larger implications for the economy as a whole. When thinking about how gender affects how we value the work that people do, this is not unlike the historical precedent that when job categories transition from being mostly male to mostly female (feminization) or mostly female to mostly male (masculinization), they too experience a concomitant shift in status and compensation.
Two examples in the United States in the 20th century are computer programming and clerical work. While computer programming masculinized, clerical work feminized. The effect on the status of the job is disheartening for the role of gender when valuing work.
In the case of computer programming, before the 1960s these jobs were largely staffed by (white) women, required low to no skill to enter the field, and offered women many opportunities for employment and promotion. However, the field at this time was largely considered menial labor, and was not considered a profession. As the field professionalized, more and more men replaced women in these roles, and computer programming became seen as a professional, highly technical niche that required much specialized training. Women were pushed out of the field, and the profession gained prestige and cultural importance. Women today still describe feeling unwelcome in a field that is dominated by men. It is only recently that there have been serious efforts to address the masculinity problem of programming.
In contrast, clerical work in the late 19th and early 20th century was considered highly skilled labor, offered room for advancement, could develop into a lifelong career, and was mainly staffed by white men. As the 20th century began, the job became reorganized, with many of its more highly valued elements split off or mechanized. Women entered the field in large numbers, and the work came to be seen as the perfect for young, middle class white women before marriage. A second phase of reorganization in the 1970s changed things again, and the job became seen as a more temporary “stopgap” measure for women of any age, particularly newly divorced women. In either case, the job was not considered the means to a lifetime career or significant remuneration for these women. This pattern can be seen again and again across job, occupations, and fields.
What does this have to do with transgender women? Simply put, transgender women’s experiences with workplace sexism call into question some dominant models of accounting for pay and prestige differentials, particularly those associated with the human capital school. Human capital is the concept in economics that your pay reflect your individual skill, or your “human capital.” Rather than looking towards individual level factors like education or experience, as human capital theorists do, economists should take a sociological -historical approach, and examine the ways in which gender itself impacts the valuation, remuneration, and organization of jobs.
Sarah Silverman is wrong; it’s not only the case that genitals are not gender, but moreover it’s not enough to treat gender like a “dummy variable.” As feminist economist Deb Figart writes in “Gender as More Than a Dummy Variable: Feminist Approaches to Discrimination,” gender is more than an independent variable. The idea that gender as a concept is independent from other factors that influence economic factors, or exogenous in the econometrics lingo, misses how gender affects each part of one’s experience in the economy, not as an independent factor, but with inherent (again in the econolingo) endogeneity. For example, in human capital theory, an economist would try to look at the factors that influence income. A typical wage regression in econometrics would have age, gender, education, years of experience as separate variables. But when women are encouraged into specific majors in college, occupational segregation is still rampant, and women are more likely to have gaps in their job tenure, how can the effect of gender be measured independently from other factors? Taking the implications of gender for economics seriously means recognizing that gender is fundamental to the structure of the economy itself.