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margaret wente

Trigger warning: Parts of this column may be offensive and upsetting to people who believe that women face a wall of discrimination out there. Readers may want to find a safe space and seek emotional support before proceeding.

Why is the gender wage gap still so huge? In Ontario, according to the Toronto Star, women in the work force now make a whopping 31.5 per cent less than men. The Premier, Kathleen Wynne, says the problem is so grave that she has ordered her ministers to develop a strategy that will "close the gap."

But how? Here's one idea. Get women in university to switch their majors. Instead of sociology, they should take petroleum engineering, which pays three or four times as much. That would close the gap in no time.

In fact, most (not all) of the wage gap is a myth, based on the same sort of flawed statistics that vastly inflate the problem of "rape culture." Yet if you doubt the magnitude of either of these problems, you will probably be denounced as a misogynist, or worse.

Just ask Christina Hoff Sommers, a mild-mannered feminist who argues that modern feminism has gone off the deep end. Take the pay gap. She points out that much of the gap is explained by the fact that women choose career paths that pay less than the work men choose. Once you correct for occupational differences, hours worked per week, and tenure in the work force, most of the pay gap disappears. The statistics bear her out.

Ms. Sommers' views are so menacing that when she spoke at Oberlin College in Ohio last month, students organized a "safe space" so that anyone who was traumatized by her remarks could seek support. For her own safety, she was given a police escort. When she told the crowd how women could narrow the wage gap by switching into engineering, they erupted with "horrified gasps & jeers," according to her tweet. (She gave a similar talk at Georgetown University, which is available online.)

Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economic historian, is probably the most authoritative expert on the history of gender and wages. So what's her take? It's more nuanced than Ms. Sommers', but just as challenging to entrenched beliefs.

"The converging roles of men and women are among the grandest advances in society and the economy in the last century," she writes. Over the past few decades, the wage gap had narrowed sharply as women caught up with men in education, job experience and career choice, and even began to surpass them in some areas. In pharmacy – a high-paying, family-friendly field where women now dominate – there is no wage gap. Pharmacists, as Prof. Goldin notes, can work as much or as little as they like, with no penalty for part-time work. Occupations in which people are relatively interchangeable don't have wage gaps. Nor do ones that don't require much face time and can be done remotely. Many tech jobs are like this.

The two job areas with the greatest gender gaps are corporate management and finance. (They're also among the highest paying.) These are jobs where, as Prof. Goldin said in a recent interview, "people earn a disproportionate premium for working long and continuous hours." In these jobs, face time, interpersonal relationships and long hours are extremely important. Flextime may be fine for worker bees, but not for people aiming to make partner or the C-suite.

This explains why female MBAs and lawyers experience the biggest gender pay gaps of all. They start out equal, but the gap increases hugely over time as women start to have kids, then narrows a bit as they come back into the work force.

This is not a problem that can be fixed by legislation. (Sorry, Ms. Wynne.) But some people believe that it can, and should, be fixed by companies. This is the view of the authors of an alarming new study by Bain & Company, reported in the Harvard Business Review. It found that the longer women work in corporate life, the less confident they are that they can make it to the top – and the less they want to. This applies to women both with and without kids. Why? Because male workaholic culture turns them off.

Here's one woman, recounting her firm's recent management retreat: "Watching middle-aged white male after middle-age white male tell their war stories of sacrificing everything to close the sale was demoralizing, I just kept sinking lower in my chair and thinking that I would never be able to make it to the senior ranks if this was what it took."

And another: "Top-level execs are 'on' 24/7 and that is not appealing at all."

In other words, the world is still run by people – mostly men – who are married to their jobs. People who get to the top, as the Bain report points out, are those who maintain a high profile in the organization "and an unwavering commitment to long hours and constant work." They start early, leave late and check their cellphones twice a nanosecond. The authors argue that these are false measures of success, and that there are better ones, and no doubt they have a point.

Here's the problem. Plenty of men actually enjoy working this hard. I suspect they aren't about to stop it just because it's unfair to women.

So if we really want to close the pay gap, we'll have to control the behaviour of men. Maybe there ought to be a law. Maybe it should be illegal to work 24/7 and sacrifice everything to close the sale. Imagine, if women ran the world, how much more civilized life would be.

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