Letter to the editor: The Hoff Sommers talk was short on facts

To the editor:

Last Thursday night I had the interesting experience of listening to Christina Hoff Sommers, brought to campus for an open lecture by the Bucknell University Conservatives Club. I appreciated the opportunity to hear directly from Professor Hoff Sommers; I’d read some of her work, namely “The War Against Boys” published in The Atlantic—and had for many years used this piece in my education courses.

Key among Professor Hoff Sommers’ points was to levy serious charges of exaggeration among those of us who maintain that there are systemic and systematic mechanisms of sex discrimination—sexism—in a variety of social institutions, evidenced (for instance) by differences in incarceration experiences, access to education, and wage gaps between men and women. While Professor Hoff Sommers critiqued her opponents, whom she called “Gender Feminists,” for maintaining these mythical beliefs with wild uses of spurious data, I found it problematic that she rarely detailed clear evidence for her own positions. Indeed, what I left the talk most surprised about was the curious omission of empirical data for her own assertions.

Her claim that the purported “wage gap” between men and women was blown out of proportion, and easily explained by the fact that women choose lower wage fields such as education and particular nursing specialties, was particularly perplexing to me. She referenced the growing college attendance rates of women as a sign of a shifting sexism situation. I will admit that Professor Hoff Sommers made me curious.

My own search led me to Auspurg, Hinz and Sauer (2017), who examine the persistence of gender pay gaps in Western societies. Their opening sentence reflects dominant sociological thought on the gender wage gap, based on empirical evidence: “Despite women’s rising participation in higher education in recent decades, gender inequalities in the labor market persist in the United States and other Western societies. Most prominently, women’s hourly wages remain approximately 80 percent of men’s wages … Even after extensively controlling for human capital and working hours, a remarkable gender pay gap remains, with the ratio of female-to-male earnings being .90 (for the United States).” These authors argue that one of the powerful forces in maintaining such pay gaps is the internalized sexism that both men and women hold, which allows them to see lower wages for women as fair.

And then I came upon a column by Petula Dvorak, journalist for The Washington Post, documenting an incredible case of the wage gap among public employees, published on the very day of Hoff Sommers’ talk. Two clerks in the Virginia legislature, doing the same job with the same title: one male and on the job for almost six years, the other a female on the job for 27 years. His salary: just north of $194,000, and hers, just over $175,000.

Now of course, this is just one case. But given this one case is among public employees, whose salaries are a matter of public record, what are we to imagine is more likely in private institutions?

In all, I’m glad for Professor Hoff Sommers’ visit. It was a provocative talk that was light on empirical details. But in all, she helped me remember that I should never be complacent about the facts. And given the facts I uncovered I was left wondering: as a self-described “Equity Feminist,” what forms of sexism would she fight against?

Professor of Education Sue Ellen Henry

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