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Monday is the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, but women are still paid less on average than men for the same work. That’s not bad just for women, it’s bad for their families and for employers and for the country, because it distorts and limits the talent pool.

So why, after years of attention to the disparities, do they persist?

Nationally, women earn 77 cents for each dollar paid to men. That’s for all women working full-time jobs. African-American women are paid 64 cents and Latinas 55 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

Full-time working women in the Seattle area earn 73 cents on the dollar, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, which studied the census data for several metropolitan areas.

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Economists have crunched numbers to explain it, social scientists have looked at behaviors, and here we are, still not entirely sure. Last month, the philosopher Sally Haslanger
gave a talk at the University of Washington on the ideas she’s developed after immersing herself in the work of those other fields.

Haslanger is a professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, and director of the MIT Women’s and Gender Studies Program. She’s married to another philosopher and has two children.

She mentioned three explanations.

The biologistic explanation: “Women are innately disadvantaged in what it takes (intelligence, competitiveness, etc.) to be successful.”

The individualistic explanation: “Women prefer to spend time with children over being in a high-paying job (for whatever reason), so they choose to forego economic success.”

The structural explanation: This is more complicated, which maybe is one reason why people often stick to one of the first two. But basically, society has a bunch of conditions that steer people toward certain choices and away from others.

It’s the structural explanation Haslanger has been working to refine.

She gave an example using an imaginary couple, Larry and Lisa, who are equally intelligent, talented, educated and experienced. They have a child and have to make some choices.

Decent child care is beyond their means. Women in their area earn less than men.

“It is reasonable for Larry to work full time and for Lisa to make adjustments in her work, e.g., to work part time, to take time off, to take a less demanding job.” That in turn means some employers will see women as a bigger risk. A woman might have a child and change her commitment to work. That reinforces the pattern.

So we have a choice that isn’t really much of a choice, and that feeds into a self-perpetuating loop of behavior. The underlying mechanisms become invisible, and it looks as if women are doing what they really want to do, and employers are acting rationally by not investing as much in female employees.

Haslanger’s ideas seek to explain a broad spectrum of injustices. And she makes the point that while spotting inequality is a good way to find injustice, what’s unequal isn’t always unjust.

People younger than 12 earn less than people older than 12. That’s unequal, but not unjust. Tall people are better represented in the NBA than short people, but that’s just a matter of qualification. And immigrants are disadvantaged in a new country that has a different language, but that is a matter of choice, not injustice.

When options are denied or restricted, choices are altered and fairness is lost. If women or minorities don’t have qualifications because they have less access to good schools, or if segregation leads people to choose less safe neighborhoods, that’s not just.

But an observer can always say, “Hey, they simply chose to live there or they aren’t qualified to work here, so there’s nothing wrong with the system.”

Haslanger’s talk was titled “The Invisibility of Injustice: Where to Find It and How to Change It.” The good part is that it can be changed.

Lisa in her example might have more control and more choices if she lived someplace with a different structure and different cultural expectations. “Why,” Haslanger asked, “isn’t there affordable (high-quality) child care? Why isn’t there pay for maternity leave?”

Sometimes, she said, “When you see problems, you’re inclined to say there must be something about that group. But maybe it’s not because that’s the way they are, but because the choice architecture makes certain choices the rational ones.”

She took that line of thinking much deeper than my toe-in-the-water rendition, but maybe this is enough of a reminder that what we see on the surface often is not all there is. To get at solutions we have to think past shallow explanations. If we do that, maybe we’ll have more to celebrate 50 years from now.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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