Equal Pay

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Equal pay between men and women in the workplace is impossible in the current cultural environment because they face different social expectations both inside and outside the workplace. Cultural expectations of women disadvantage them especially in the area of unpaid work that directly affects current and future salary expectations.

Christian Perspective on Equality

Although a diversity of opinion exists about Christians should relate to each other within the family, little diversity of opinion exists about the need for Christians to live in and value family life. We are created male and female equally in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and we cannot fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiple” without working together (Gen 1:28). The Apostle Paul underscores this equality of the sexes when he writes about our equality in Christ (Gal 3:28)

The diversity of opinion arises from the division of labor between husband and wife stated in Biblical accounts. For example, after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God curses Eve saying: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing” (Gen 3:16). Meanwhile, God curses the ground to bear “thorns and thistles” increasing Adam’s labor in the fields to grow food (Gen. 3:18). The implication that Eve is to be busy with the kids while Adam works the fields.

While this division of labor is often viewed as prescriptive for husbands and wives today, even in rural settings in the developing world today women also work the fields. Reading more closely in the Genesis account we also see that this division of labor is not ideal—it only comes after the fall. The Biblical ideal is better read as we are equal under God and we do what we must to be faithful servants. We must look elsewhere to explain the disparity in men and women’s wages, but be sensitive to the divine intention.

Presuppositions and Discrimination

In human capital theory, economists have two working definitions of discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made both types of discrimination illegal, but it is helpful to distinguish these types in order to come up with effective policy alternatives.

The first type of discrimination is based on preference (Becker 1957). If I find a group disagreeable, then I will be willing to pay a penalty to avoid associating with them. 

The prescription for dealing with this type of discrimination is to raise the legal penalty for disobeying the law. Thus, someone alleging discrimination has a legal right to file a lawsuit and ask for penalties to be assessed to recoup losses accrued on account of the discrimination.

The second type of discrimination is statistical discrimination (Thurow 1975). Statistical discrimination occurs when observations from past experience with members of a group are applied unreflectively to new individuals. The calculus would be something like in the past people from group A were worth $10 a hour while those from group B were worth $15, so I will pay individual A+1 $10 and individual B+1 $15 without bothering to explore their actual work experience.

The prescription for statistical discrimination is assign the search costs to evaluate work experience to the individuals applying for work because this removes the incentive to discriminate on the basis of rules of thumb from the employer’s past experience. Other prescriptions have included the use of quotes in hiring.

Market Observation

If women’s work is equal to men’s work, then companies could hire only women and drive the discriminating companies out of business on account of their misogyny. The observation that we seldom see this sort of behavior suggests that discrimination against women is not based on preferences so much as statistical experiences being applied to individuals. The real question is why does past experience continue to justify these sorts of rules of thumb being applied?

The Nature of Work

Aspects of wage determination seriously disadvantage women. Returning to the ideal of human capital, when an employers pays an employee a wage, part of the wage pays for today’s work and part pays for future work that may well change in ways that cannot be anticipated. Consequently, employees in skilled occupations constantly need to learn new things to keep up. We would expect therefore that if women are disadvantaged in learning new skills on the job, then we would expect them to earn less in proportion to the amount of skill required in a particular occupation.

The key disadvantage in this context arises in the area of unpaid work. Unpaid work occurs when an employee works sixty hours a week, but is only paid for forty hours. Unpaid work is a significant portion of  the work done in most salaried positions today and it has increased with the almost ubiquitous availability of cell phones and laptop computers.

Unpaid work has two important outcomes that affect wages. Unpaid work lowers the effective wage and it increases the job-related training that employees engage in. Unpaid work is sometimes required but more normally it is at the discretion of the employee. If women as a group engage in less unpaid work than men, then wages ought to reflect that difference.

Policy Alternative

If social obligations make it impossible for women to engage in as much unpaid work as men, then wage differences reflect a reality well-known to employers. Given this reality, forcing employers to paid men and women the same wage will naturally result in fewer women being hired, which is an anticipatable yet unintended effect.

Recognizing that unpaid work is the source of the wage discrepancy suggests, however, that employers could level the playing field by severely limiting opportunities to engage in unpaid work both inside and outside the workplace. Because employers are unlikely to give up unpaid work, government regulations could change the treatment of salaried work to make it more like hourly work where overtime regulations apply. Requiring overtime to be paid irrespective of employee classification turns unpaid work into paid work and would discourage employers from encouraging excessive unpaid work.

Regulations could also be developed to require employers to pay employees for time spent reading emails and doing work-related studies. The problem with taking this policy too far is that a vibrant economy requires that companies innovate and workers learn and evolve with changing circumstances. Unpaid work is a component of economic adjustment and in that context should be encouraged. This implies that true gender equality in the workplace is but one among many policy goals.

A Christian Response to the Workplace

Facing an increasingly competitive global work environment, Christians like everyone else are constantly given choices among undesirable alternatives outside our control. Having women compete with men in the workplace invariably devalues family life by making children an expensive option. Falling fertility rates among American women show that in the absence of immigration population levels will decline, which is a measure of the stress currently being placed on families.

In our family, my wife and I had children in our thirties and my wife stayed home for ten years while our threes kids were young. The kids were born about sixteen months apart to minimize her time at home. Although my wife is trained as an engineer, she found that teaching mathematics and chemistry in the local high schools was more compatible with family life and she enjoyed teaching. Having her work was not so much an income maximizing activity as an effective hedge against uncertainty in my own employment prospects.

What is the Christian response to a difficult workplace? We are called to live in and value family life. Other considerations are secondary.


Becker, Gary S. 1957. The Economics of Discrimination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thurow, Lester C. 1975. Generating Inequality. New York: Basic Books.

Equal Pay

Also See:

Value Of Life

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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