NEW YORK — Are women paid less than men because they choose to be, by gravitating to lower-paying jobs such as teaching and social work?
That is what some Republicans who voted down the equal-pay bill this month would have you believe.
“There’s a disparity not because female engineers are making less than male engineers at the same company with comparable experience,” according to the Republican National Committee. “The disparity exists because a female social worker makes less than a male engineer.”
But a majority of the pay gap between men and women actually comes from differences within occupations, not between them — and widens in the highest-paying ones such as business, law, and medicine, according to data from Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University labor economist and a leading scholar on women and the economy.
“There is a belief, which is just not true, that women are just in bad occupations, and if we just put them in better occupations, we would solve the gender-gap problem,” Ms. Goldin said.
Rearranging women into higher-paying occupations would erase just 15 percent of the pay gap for all workers and between 30 percent and 35 percent for college graduates, she found. The rest has to do with something happening inside the workplace.
Take doctors and surgeons. Women earn 71 percent of men’s wages — after controlling for age, race, hours, and education. Women who are financial specialists make 66 percent of what men in the same occupation earn, and women who are lawyers and judges make 82 percent.
Other occupations have managed to narrow or even close the pay gap. As pharmacists, women make 91 percent of what men make, and as computer programmers they make 90 percent. Male and female tax preparers, ad sales agents, and human resources specialists make equivalent salaries.
So what’s the difference?
Ms. Goldin sets aside much of the conventional wisdom about what makes workplaces more equitable, such as anti-discrimination laws and employee revolt. And she does not emphasize the “Lean In” prescription — involving men in domestic chores and improving women’s confidence and negotiating skills.
Instead, she said, the trick is workplace flexibility in terms of hours and location.
“The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours,” Ms. Goldin wrote in a paper published this month in the American Economic Review.
Occupations that most value long hours, face time at the office and being on call — such as business, law, and surgery — tend to have the widest pay gaps. That is because those employers pay people who spend longer hours at the office disproportionately more than they pay people who don’t, Ms. Goldin found.
A lawyer who works 80 hours a week at a big corporate law firm is paid more than double one who works 40 hours a week as an in-house counsel at a small business.
Jobs in which employees easily can substitute for one another have the slimmest pay gaps, and those workers are paid in proportion to the hours they work.
Pharmacy is Ms. Goldin’s favorite example. A pharmacist who works 40 hours a week generally earns double the salary of a pharmacist who works 20 hours a week, and as a result, the pay gap for pharmacists is one of the smallest.
Pharmacy became such an equitable profession not because of activism but because of changes in the labor market — fewer self-owned pharmacies and more large corporations — and changes in technology — storing patient records on computers where they are easily accessible by any pharmacist.
In other jobs, workers have made these changes themselves.
Conventional wisdom is that in jobs such as surgery, employees cannot easily substitute for one another and must be on call.
But in one type of medicine, obstetrics, doctors have figured out another way.
No longer are many obstetricians on call around the clock. If a baby arrives in the middle of the night, a doctor working an eight-hour shift at the hospital is likely to handle the delivery instead of the doctor who cared for the mother for 40 weeks.
“Somehow in obstetrics we have convinced people that it doesn’t matter which one you’re going to get,” Ms. Goldin said. “It’s just the way that it has to be.”
What all this data presumes is that women with children are the ones who want the flexibility to work remotely or at odd hours.
Maybe more workplaces would change more quickly if men placed more value on that too.