Entrepreneurship, knowledge and employment

John Stuart Mill on gender pay gaps

Virginie Gouverneur, BETA-University of Strasbourg (France)

The purpose of this paper is to shed light on Mill’s contribution to the issue of gender pay gaps. Mill being the first economist to address this issue, a preliminary study of the context in which his analysis was made reveals its exceptional character. Regarding the content, the chapter of Mill’s Principles dealing with women’s wages puts a positive analysis in the front. Mill indeed endeavors to identify the causes of wage discrimination against women in the labor market. He indicates various causes, including the custom that man should always take the lion’s share in what belongs to both sexes; the male-breadwinner wage norm implying that men’s wages of subsistence must be higher than those of women; occupational segregation due to law and usage which leads to overcrowding of traditionally female trades. On the basis of this positive analysis, it is possible to bring Mill’s normative analysis of gender pay inequalities to light. For him, wage inequalities not justified by differences of efficiency are illegitimate. Then, the question arises of means to reduce these inequalities. Among them, Mill alludes to the removal of barriers to women’s entry into the labor market. He questions in particular the sexual division of social functions. But what about wage differentials due to the gender division of paid labor? Competition is not free on certain segments of the labor market. Men had at the time a monopoly on skilled and remunerative trades. To what extent was Mill opposed to these professional barriers? Finally, if women were as free as men to specialize in the occupation of their choice, could the resulting wage inequalities be considered legitimate? While Mill analyzes women’s decisions in terms of specialization and investment in human capital, he does not take into account the lack of sharing of domestic tasks as a constraint that may influence these decisions. He however considers that women’s preferences are likely to change as their condition improves.


Keywords: John Stuart Mill, gender pay gap, wage discrimination, sexual division of labor

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