”Gender Gap” Mania

Inside Higher Ed had a brief notice yesterday, “Worldwide Gender Gap in Academic Salaries in Science,” that, though accurate as far as it goes, is revealingly, almost humorously, incomplete and misleading.
Here is the IHE piece in its entirety:

A worldwide analysis by Nature of the salaries of men and women in academic science has found that men’s salaries were 18 to 40 percent higher in countries for which there were significant sample sizes — Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States. The general pattern was for salary gaps to grow over the course of careers, with men’s salaries starting to gain relative to women in the three-to-five year period after the start of a career in Europe and after six years in North America.

The American higher education establishment, and apparently those who report on it, suffer from gap mania. Everywhere they look there is some “gap” to be corrected, and some uncorrected, often hidden (read “structural”) discrimination causing it. To see that attitude at work here, I encourage you take a look at the Nature article linked above. If you do, you will see that it is not “a worldwide analysis … of the salaries of men and women in academic science” at all. Entitled “For Love And Money,” the Nature article begins by noting, in bold, that “[t]he self-reported contentment of researchers with their chosen profession depends on more than just salaries, according to the results of our international career survey.”
The purpose of the survey, in short, was only incidentally to examine men’s and women’s salaries. Rather, it aimed “to track contentment with one’s job by region or by job attributes such as health care, the degree of independence or mentoring potential,” and it was not limited to “academic science.”

This was a major aim of Nature’s first-ever salary and career survey. We looked at overall career satisfaction and the factors that contribute to it by career stage, gender and geographical region. More than 10,500 scientists responded to the survey from dozens of countries worldwide. (Full details of the methodology behind the survey can be found at http://go.nature.com/aSZqch.)

Salary, of course, is relevant to overall happiness, ranking second of eight factors that were examined.

By comparing the average satisfaction scores for each of our eight factors with respondents’ total satisfaction score, we found that “guidance received from superiors or coworkers” was the biggest influence overall on satisfaction levels. One possible conclusion here is that scientists crave guidance and mentoring, seeking assurance from others that they are likely to learn and progress — and they may place a higher premium on mentoring as science careers become increasingly competitive.
Salary was the second-biggest driver of satisfaction…

The survey did find “that gender inequities in salaries persist,” but that was not a major focus of the survey, it was not discussed until the end of a very long article about a much longer survey, and the article (and so far as I can tell, the survey) offered no explanation of the “gender inequities” — or even any evidence that the “gender discrepancies” were in fact inequitable. In fact, what the survey did find — the only finding from among many noted by Inside Higher Ed — raises interesting questions. The survey found, to remind you:

Men’s salaries were 18% to 40% higher than women’s in the countries for which we had significant sample sizes — Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, India, Japan, Canada and the United States….
Our data comparing income to years from degree suggest that the disparities grow over the course of men and women’s careers. In Europe, men’s salaries start to increase noticeably in relation to women’s in the 3–5-year range, and in the 6–10-year range in North America…

“Despite such discrepancies,” the article concluded, “overall job satisfaction levels among male and female researchers were remarkably similar.”
The salary trend chart (an expanded and clearly readable version of which can be viewed here) indicates identical salaries for men and women in the United States out to six years beyond the final degree, after which men’s salaries become higher. There is no explanation for the divergence. There was obviously no discrimination for six years. If discrimination explains the “gender discrepancies,” why did it wait six years to occur? Does discrimination, in fact, have anything to do with the difference in salaries? Could the difference be explained by hours worked? By the scientific field — isn’t pay higher in some scientific fields than others? Are men and women equally distributed in those fields? Since the survey includes industry as well as academia (industry pay is 40% higher than academic in the United States), are men and women equally distributed between the private sector and academia? Within industry, is there a difference in the types of work being done? The kinds of companies where it is being done?
Without such information it is highly tendentious for Nature, or anyone else, to speak confidently of gender “discrepancies” and “inequities,” and for Inside Higher Ed to use such a loaded term as “gender gap in Acacemic Salaries in Science” as though the gap itself were all one needs to know.

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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