It’s Equal Pay Day – But Is the Gender Gap Real?


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Tuesday, April 9, is the day we're supposed to recognize how women are discriminated against in the workplace. Let's start by getting the facts straight.

Tuesday, April 9, has been labeled “Equal Pay Day.” It’s to draw attention to the fact that men are paid more than women — a fact recognized by everyone from President Obama to “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg.

But is it real?

Read the following statement from the National Women’s Law Center, then decide what it means.

The typical American woman who works full time, year round is paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to her male counterpart. This gap in earnings translates into $11,084 less per year in median earnings, leaving women and their families shortchanged.

Now, what is this paragraph telling you?
A. A woman, identical in every job-related respect other than sex, is paid less than a man to do the same job.
B. Women, on average, take home less money than men.

The implications of these answers are radically different. If it’s A, you could be looking at illegal discrimination. But if it’s B, it’s inconclusive. If men average more take-home pay than women, there could be lots of reasons. It could be illegal discrimination. But if male-dominated jobs (construction) pay more than female-dominated jobs (teaching), it’s possible nothing’s amiss. Likewise if the average male has more seniority than the average female, or a higher level of education.

In short, the lone fact that someone makes more than you doesn’t mean a thing until you know why.

So, which answer  did you pick?

You could certainly be forgiven for picking A. In fact, the way the statement is worded, you’re pushed in that direction. It says, “… is paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to her male counterpart,” implying a male in the same job.

The correct answer, however, is B. The “77 cents to a man’s dollar” argument is based on the average earnings of all women versus the average earnings of all men without regard for what they’re doing for a living, how long they’ve been doing it, or any other factor that influences earnings. It’s ridiculous.

If we’re going to address wage discrimination, shouldn’t we do it honestly?

I wrote about this two years ago in a post called “Women Make Only 75 Percent of What Men Make – Fact or Fiction?” and others have as well. But this distortion of the facts seems unwilling to die.

Here’s how a recent article begins on Huff Post Women called “Don’t Just Get Mad About the Gender Pay Gap, Do Something on Equal Pay Day!

Another year has passed, and yet the pay gap remains stubbornly in place. Today, it stands at 23 cents, meaning that women, on average, are paid 77 percent of what men are paid — an average that’s even lower for black and Hispanic/Latina women.

Myth perpetuated.

Myth combated: From a recent article on Time’s website:

Let’s first dispense with the fallacy that the pay-gap ratios so often cited are for women and men doing the same job. They are not. If they were, then a female marketing account manager making $77,000, while her male colleague with the same title and work experience makes $100,000, would have a very good case to sue her employers under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which protects men and women from sex discrimination in pay rates. The pay-gap ratios don’t even refer to men and women in the same occupation. 

Is the gender gap real?

Perhaps you think that, because I’m a male, I’m claiming wage discrimination doesn’t exist. Not at all – I suspect it does.

But there’s a problem with using fuzzy math to draw attention to gender inequality. Namely, it allows those so inclined to dismiss what could be a legitimate complaint.

Credible evidence regarding wage discrimination does exist. For example, the author of the Huff Post article references a study that provides evidence of sexual bias among university science faculty. From the abstract:

In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student — who was randomly assigned either a male or female name — for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.

Findings like these warrant discussion. But comparing apples to oranges serves to obfuscate, rather than illuminate, the problem.

If you’re interested in understanding the gender gap, start with the Wikipedia page called “Male-female income disparity in the United States.” It points to lots of studies, but don’t expect a cut and dried, definitive answer because many studies conflict with one another.

For example, the Wikipedia page cites a 2003 study from the Government Accountability Office:

The researchers controlled for “work patterns,” including years of work experience, education, and hours of work per year, as well as differences in industry, occupation, race, marital status, and job tenure. With controls for these variables in place, the data showed that women earned, on average, 20 percent less than men during the entire period 1983 to 2000.

A couple of paragraphs later:

Economist June O’Neill, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, found an unexplained pay gap of 8% after controlling for experience, education, and number of years on the job. Furthermore, O’Neill found that among young people who have never had a child, women’s earnings approach 98 percent of men’s.

The bottom line

Today you’re going to see a lot of headlines and hear a lot of reporters claim women earn 77 cents for every dollar men make. While that might make for a great sound bite, the math is fuzzy and the comparison is silly.

If you’re seriously interested in the problem, ignore the hype and dig a little deeper. Arm yourself with the facts. Then, if you don’t like what you see, do something about it.

Whether it’s based on race, religion, or sex, discrimination has no place in America.  But neither does faulty logic and bad journalism.

So, what do you think? Is the gender gap real? Have you encountered it? Offer your opinion or tell us your stories below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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