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The 23-cent ‘wage gap’ is more fiction than fact

Brennoh_23/Flickr: Creative Commons

Last week, Harvard professor Claudia Goldin came to the University of Massachusetts as part of her lecture series “Career and Family—Collision or Confluence.” She spoke about the gender pay gap and life in the workplace for women. Collegian columnist Will Katcher followed up on this talk in a recent column, “The U.S. lacks in its support of working women,” and called for paid maternity leave while lamenting the 23-cent wage gap. After all, women get paid 77 cents on the dollar for the same work as men, right?

Wrong. Statistical evidence suggests that the gender pay gap may be much smaller than we’ve been told, and the often cited 23-cent discrepancy can be accounted for in part by the decisions people of different genders make, instead of discrimination in the labor market.

But don’t tell that to former President Obama. In 2011, he rallied against gender discrimination in the workplace and lambasted the ‘fact’ that “women earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn.” Katcher referred to Obama’s claim as evidence of “de facto wage discrimination,” and he isn’t the only one.

Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and countless other liberal figures have pushed similar ideas, and those ideas have become prevalent in common political discourse. You’ve probably heard the same concept—that women are paid 77 cents on the dollar—pushed on this campus. But even the fact checker at the left-leaning Washington Post gave Obama a “Pinocchio” rating for this misleading statement. In regard to Obama’s claim, Politifact concluded “the data doesn’t show that.” As it turns out, the science behind these ideas is far from convincing.

When we think of a ‘pay gap,’ we usually think of a difference in how men and women are paid for the same job. After all, “equal pay for equal work” has become the mantra of some on the left, such as Nancy Pelosi. But the statistics Obama and other politicians are relying on aren’t measuring “equal work.” They usually cite numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Census Bureau to back up their claims, but in both cases, the earnings are being measured in terms of weekly or annual wages. These measures of income don’t account for many factors that may heavily influence the results, like the fact that women and men aren’t always working the same jobs or the same numbers of hours.

For many of the jobs that offer the highest income, women make up a small fraction of the workforce. Only five percent of Chief Technology Officers are women, and they make up only 10 percent of Chief Investment Officers. Furthermore, just four percent of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. Meanwhile, in lower-paying industries like education, secretarial work and care, the majority of workers are women. I’m not saying that this discrepancy is right, or that this is the way things should be, but these facts make one thing clear: Politicians can’t use net earnings as evidence that women are paid less for doing the same job.

Differences between men and women don’t just result in different career paths. Women work fewer hours and are more likely to take time off from their careers to take care of children. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that any study which compares the total weekly or annual wages of men and women (like the ones Obama cited) can’t prove wage discrimination.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis stress the importance of using economic studies that compare wages hour for hour, as opposed to annually or weekly. A 2007 Labor Department study that compared hourly wages found that the wage gap was only about five cents when variables such as career and life choices were taken into account.

Still, Katcher insists that “Women absolutely do make less money than men for equal work.” But when you look at the link that is cited for evidence, it says that “when comparing the sexes with the same job title at the same company and using similar education and experience,” men only “earned 2.4 percent more than women on average.” 2.4 percent? That’s not 23 cents less per dollar. It’s not even three cents. Under closer scrutiny, the narrative of the 23-cent wage gap falls apart.

I’m certainly not saying that women deserve to be paid five cents less than men per dollar. They don’t deserve to be paid three cents less, or any lesser amount for that matter. But that’s a small enough difference that we can’t necessarily leap to discrimination as its root cause. In fact, it may be that the unequal benefits women receive regarding maternity leave may be a realistic trade-off for the decrease in pay that they face. On average, roughly 273,000 women take maternity leave in the United States each month, compared to just 22,000 men who take paternity leave. Katcher is calling out a problem that barely exists, and advocating for a solution that might make it worse.

Systemic discrimination might be a convenient narrative, but in this case, it’s not supported by the facts. When it comes to gender inequality, people need to realize that rhetoric is no substitute for solid statistics.

 

Brad Polumbo is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at bpolumbo@umass.edu or found on Twitter @Brad_Polumbo.

 

 

Comments
3 Responses to “The 23-cent ‘wage gap’ is more fiction than fact”
  1. Ed Cutting, EdD says:

    You need to look at hours worked per week.
    Then you have to look at time out of the workforce.
    .
    Then you have to look at education — back in the 1970’s, twice as many men as women went to college.
    .
    So if you look at childless women under age 35 who have a college degree, they’re making slightly more than men their own age.

  2. Sam Wilkinson says:

    1. How on God’s Green Earth is Ed Cutting STILL commenting on Daily Collegian posts?

    2. No, seriously, how?

    3. Men excusing the paygap will always be one of the dumbest things imaginable.

  3. NITZAKHON says:

    @Sam:

    WHAAAA! Make the eeeevil Ed Cutting go away!!! WHAAAAA!!!

    Time to go get milk and cookies, plus cuddles, in your safe space, snowflake.

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