It’s summer for us academics, but that doesn’t mean we’re on vacation. Although I’m free from grading papers down at my university, I still spend loads of time on my own research. When I’m not actively working on scholarship, I’m also diving headfirst into political and cultural debates online, usually on Twitter. It’s not surprising then, that I often find myself debating misogynists. Issues like the gender pay gap have become important for me lately,and it often sneaks out into my activism. I remember becoming more aware of pay inequality several years ago, when the White House formed the Equal Pay Task Force, and it’s held my attention ever since. Before then, I’d never seriously considered that I or other women might be underpaid in this society.
Equal pay has been in the news a lot this year. In January, President Obama announced plans for the federal government to start tracking company salaries by gender and ethnicity. My hero, Gillian Anderson, who campaigned for equal pay in the 1990s, again had to counter a much lower offer than what Fox offered to equal-billing co-star David Duchovny for returning to The X-Files. And earlier this summer, a 17-year-old was fired for asking about pay inequalities at a pizzeria where she worked. Once the news went viral, the pizzeria fired their manager and offered the girl her job back—denying allegations of pay discrimination.
The idea of equal pay has its opponents. Just like the birther movement started by our favorite orange man (aka presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump), the “mythers,” as I’ll call them, like to challenge facts by throwing dust in the air. Since at least 2008, the birthers have insisted that Barack Obama “prove” his U.S. citizenship. Some of them have even claimed that his birth certificate is phony. Likewise, for years now, a contingent of anti-feminists have challenged basic facts about the gender pay gap in the U.S. The “mythers” use the same basic strategies as the “birthers,” cooking up whatever nonsense they can to cast doubt on facts.
I’ve learned to spot mythers on the first tweet. Their opening move is to presume I’m just whining about my own salary, and they ask me how I know for sure that I’m underpaid. On that note, I should state up front that I currently make the same as other male professors in my department, confirmed by salary databases that are public record for university employees. But pay equality isn’t the case at every university, as is clearly shown in a breakdown of statistics in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And it’s a problem in many other professions.
In fact, at my previous institutions, I saw women routinely punished when they asked for raises and promotions, or requested the maternity leave that the university was contractually obligated to provide. My department chair at the time spent 30 minutes fuming at me over coffee after a colleague told him she was taking her maternity leave in August; he was somehow convinced that she was just trying to extend her break for fun. My department chair couldn’t punish her directly, mind you. He could, however, assign her classes at inconvenient times, condemn her to lower-level courses with heavy paper loads, give her more service work, write terse annual review letters, refer to her as a “troublemaker” when she wasn’t on campus, drag his feet on approving her travel expense forms, and pull his public support from any initiatives she brought before the department. In short, he could make her miserable without violating any specific law. These acts are typically called microaggressions, and they happen all the time because they’re so hard to document as official acts of abuse or misogyny. They, in turn, reinforce the pay gap.
Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence, anti-feminists still insist that the data for the gap presented is wrong. Here’s a breakdown of the typical “myther” argument, in my experience:
- If you’re paid less, it’s not because of your gender. It’s because you’re less qualified or have less experience.
- The particular area of your profession, if it’s dominated by women, just happens to pay less than other areas dominated by men. For example, pediatricians tend to be women, and pediatricians in general make less than other types of doctors.
- Women aren’t really paid 70-77 cents per dollar compared to men. That’s just an average of wages and salaries by gender.
- If you’re a mom, you probably make less because you work fewer hours.
It just so happens that the wage gap is complicated, a fact which sexist trolls exploit in order to label research on it as “misleading,” and because of this, mythers are often able to tar-brush all feminists as liars and whiners. Consider how research by Claudia Goldin is spun in very different ways by NPR, The New Republic, and then The Washington Examiner.
In The New Republic, Goldin is clearly quoted as saying the often cited “77 cents on the dollar” figure is accurate and a good “thermometer,” especially in lower paying jobs. Despite this, she notes that this figure doesn’t tell the full story. Likewise, Goldin’s interview with NPR clearly states that the gender wage gap persists, although it varies by profession.
While NPR and The New Republic faithfully represent Goldin’s research, The Examiner slaps on a juicy headline, “Harvard Economist Takes Down Gender Pay Gap Myth.” The editors certainly know their readership, I’ll give them credit for that.
Of course, The Examiner story couldn’t be more reductive. The “mythers” cherry-pick parts of Goldin’s research that suit the conservative anti-feminist narrative, and then ignore everything else.
Such misinterpretations of academic research make my soul melt, because they cause a chain reaction of faulty arguments that sustain the opposite of the university’s mission–to enlighten. This video by Christina Hoff, recently shared with me by someone who spends a fair deal of time online combating “feminist propaganda,” is the product of such chain reactions. Here, Hoff talks through each of the four points listed above, then concludes with a declaration that feminists are hurting women by distracting them from “real issues,” whatever those might be.
It’s no surprise that Hoff is employed by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in D.C. In her attempt to call out the fallacious thinking of feminists, Hoff engages in her own particular form of flawed thinking that reflects the logic of the mythers I see on a daily basis.
The mythers I debate with online raise these exact points to me. But a funny thing happens when I call them out on their bullshit:
- First, I ask how someone decides if a woman is “less experienced” for a given job and therefore deserves a lower salary. How do we know for sure if equally qualified employees receive equal pay unless we build exactly the kind of national salary database that the Obama Administration wants? How can a woman be “underqualified” if they have the same recquired qualifacations as her male colleagues?
- Second, I ask if it’s a coincidence that areas of medicine which just happen to be dominated by women also just happen to pay less. In other words, why do the careers women pursue often carry lower salaries? Do we just crave to be undervalued?
- Third, I ask if the 70-77 cents figure is just an average of wages and salaries by gender, then isn’t that the very point feminists are trying to make in the first place? That it’s the average figure that is so skewed and unfair?
- Lastly, I ask if it’s unreasonable for a woman to expect equal pay as well as a family, a family that depends on her paycheck in order to lead a safe and happy life. Should women really be expected to accept an indirect salary penalty for having children (since, you know, cisgender men can’t procreate and the survival of our species kind of depends on us)?
The mythers tend to ignore my point about systematic pay gaps. They either can’t or won’t tell me why pediatricians are paid less than other doctors. Who among us would argue that pediatricians are less valuable or require less expertise than a general practitioner? The idea that pediatricians might earn less on average than other doctors because they’re largely women must blow their minds. On the fourth point, anti-feminists flat out tell me that women don’t deserve equal pay if they work fewer hours due to childcare needs.
Here’s the funniest part: Instead of attacking their views, I concede to them, and admit that perhaps the best solution to the problem involves more men taking equal responsibility for childcare. If that happens, then women won’t need to work fewer hours or take as much leave. Instead of agreeing with me, anti-feminists tend to say that child nurturing is an evolutionary imperative for women, and that challenging evolutionary principle “just for the sake of it” makes no sense. Even though we go against evolution every day in other areas of human life, easily.
So let me sum up the turn of events. Sexist apologists for the wage gap begin by trying to prove that it’s a “myth” by giving misleading and erroneous statistics, or downright lying. When that doesn’t work, they admit that women do earn less, but wait, there’s a good reason for it! And when that doesn’t work, they resort to their real views, that women are “designed” by some higher force (God/Evolution/The Wizard of Oz) to raise kids and should just accept their lot in life.
Fortunately, some good resources exist in case you ever have to prove to an anti-feminist “myther” why the wage gap is a genuine concern. First, John Oliver tackled this topic in 2014. I highly recommend watching and sharing once again, because apparently, some people still don’t get it.
Another accessible resource is a blog post by Heidi Hartmann, Barbara Gault, and Ariane Hegewisch for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In this post, the authors discuss 5 key points you can use in response to any trolls you might encounter.
We may never fully understand why anti-feminists feel the need to dispel the pay gap “myth.” I suspect a girl kicked their asses at chess or soccer at some point, and ever since then they can’t accept that a woman might know more, learn more, earn more, or achieve more than they can. The worst sexists I’ve met, both online and offline, also seem desperately unhappy. They think life has treated them unfairly, and so they want to deny people like me (generally happy and successful) the right to point out unfairness. Some even blame people like me for “stealing” their jobs or awards, like somehow I’ve used feminism or my “woman card” to just heap privileges on myself.
These misanthropes cruise the Internet looking for ways to belittle anyone—especially feminists—as a distraction from their own failures. I’ll admit that many women, myself included, don’t like intense conflict, and if someone starts attacking me, slinging insults and making empty physical threats, I’ll usually leave. I’m sure doing that sometimes makes me look timid and weak, easy prey for trolls. For example, one sexist spewed two or three hateful emails at me full of insults and capital letters until I wrote back telling him I couldn’t stand his anger anymore and that I was blocking him. He wrote back one final time to declare “victory,” and called me his intellectual inferior. On a discussion board, someone else said I wasn’t worth debating because I asked him to refrain from calling me a stupid bitch.
Misogynists have done everything from mansplaining at me, to simply calling me an idiot or a c*nt. As for women like Christina Hoth, part of me wonders why she’s so interested in proving the gender pay gap a myth. It could be internalized misogyny, or it could be a general conservative ideology that can’t make room for feminism. Regardless, anti-feminists are happy to point at her and say, “Look, a woman disagrees with you. That’s proof we’re right!”
Sometimes I wonder if I’m wasting my time arguing with anti-feminists. After all, I’m not tenured quite yet, and could always publish another peer-reviewed article. Writing this though, I’d say it’s worth the effort. I think there is value in making it as difficult and unpleasant as possible for sexist trolls to spread their bile. Every time I dispute sexist rhetoric, anti-feminists may be a little less likely to try and intimidate someone else. When a sexist is arguing with me, that’s time they are not spending indoctrinating a younger, less mature, or less confident girl. Every pizzeria that gets called out in national news for sexism makes it less likely that another teen will get fired for asking a question about her paycheck. Every time an actress contacts the press about her co-stars superior contract, a producing team may balance their numbers in the future. And every time I write a piece like this, it’s more likely that another girl will speak up against the bullshit she faces.