There’s been a lot of high-profile talk about equality lately. President Barack Obama has been trying to make political hay by railing against unequal pay between the sexes, and former President Jimmy Carter recently expressed similar sentiment in a speech.
Of course, inequality is a problem. So, too, is the recent political rhetoric about inequality because it assumes that a pay disparity is unequal pay. “Equal” does not mean “the same,” and “unequal” does not mean “different.” Every policy treats people differently in one way or another. For example, consider how income taxation affects two people who earn different amounts of income. If the two people pay the same income-tax rate (e.g., 20%), the wealthier person will pay a greater total dollar amount to the government. If they pay the same total dollar amount, the wealthier person will pay a smaller percentage of his income to the government. They cannot pay both the same tax rate and same total dollar amount. If “different” means “unequal,” then every policy would be unequal in some way. Equality would be an impossible goal, so criticizing a policy for being unequal would be pointless.
Instead, “equality” means that things should be treated alike if they are alike in ways relevant to their treatment. This view has been a hallmark of Western civilization for thousands of years. Aristotle wrote about this view of equality around 350 B.C. The U.S. Supreme Court has always interpreted the Constitution’s right to “equal protection of the laws” according to this view of equality.
President Obama recently claimed that unequal pay between the sexes “isn’t a myth; it’s math.” But equality isn’t just about numbers. Equality is a complicated moral and legal concept that involves determining whether differential treatment is justified. Treating two employees differently because of their gender is never (or perhaps very rarely) justified. But there are a lot of legitimate reasons for treating two employees differently, regardless of whether they are of different sexes. Simply looking at how much they earn says nothing about whether they should be paid the same amount as each other, because those figures say nothing about the reasons for the pay disparity. Assuming that gender is the reason why women are paid less than men on average is hasty.
For example, a dental assistant is treated differently than a dentist because the dentist is paid more. That pay disparity is justified because the dentist’s work requires a greater amount of knowledge, training, and education, and due to market forces the dentist’s work brings more money into the dental office. Because of those differences, paying a dentist more than a dental assistant does not amount to unequal pay.
If most dental assistants are female and most dentists are male, that does not mean there is a pay disparity based on gender. Although females who work at dental offices would get paid less on average than their male co-workers, that disparity is because more males hold the higher-paying job of dentist. And the dentists are paid more than the assistants because of the differences just discussed, not because of gender. A legitimate pay disparity between dentists and dental assistants does not become gender discrimination simply because most dentists are male. The reasons behind a pay disparity determine whether the disparity is justified – in other words, whether there is “unequal pay.”
But what if a male dentist is paid more than his female dentist co-worker? There may be good reasons for the male dentist to get paid more, although the female dentist is performing a similar job. Perhaps the male dentist has more seniority or more experience. Perhaps he brings in more patients. Perhaps he opened the dental office with his own money and thus assumed a large risk of loss, so his higher pay reimburses his initial investment in the office.
The most important take-home point is to be alert to word choice when talking or hearing about equality. Defending a pay disparity is not the same thing as defending unequal pay, because “different” does not necessarily mean “unequal.” We determine whether a disparity is unequal by deciding whether the disparity is justified – that is, by deciding whether relevant and legitimate reasons explain the disparity. That involves more than simply pointing out a disparity.