A number of factors explain the persistent wage differences between men and women. In some countries, men may be better educated. But in most places, the reasons are murky: there’s really no reasonable explanation other than simple discrimination.
A recent report from the International Labor Organization, or ILO, finds wage gaps of between 4% and 36% across a sample of 38 countries and big differences between what it calls “explained” differences (the legitimate reasons) and “unexplained” ones (discrimination, basically).
See the results plotted in these charts. The first shows the level of explained and unexplained gaps by country, and where in the pay scale discrimination is greatest. For example, the U.S. has relatively low levels of discrimination until you reach the highest earners (the ninth percentile). In other countries, like Belgium and Estonia, the “unexplained” gap is more persistent across wage levels.
The most interesting part is what happens if, counterfactually, you were to take away the unexplained portion. The report finds that in nearly half the countries surveyed–including Sweden, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Brazil–women would earn more than men.
The ILO points out that gender-based wage inequality isn’t just a matter of fairness. It also affects economic performance. “Overcoming unequal pay between men and women is crucial to ensuring inclusive growth and requires sustained efforts at various levels,” says the ILO’s Manuela Tomei. That includes ending bias among wage-fixing institutions, like minimum pay boards, and improving maternity and paternity leave arrangements.
There may be good reasons for treating people differently, but gender ought not be one of them.