Women Make only 75 Percent of What Men Make – Fact or Fiction?

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Last night NBC's Savannah Guthrie implied that women are paid only 75 percent of what men make for the same work. What she accomplished was to perpetuate the myth that women aren't good with numbers.

March is Women’s History Month, something we’ll be reporting on shortly with a couple of different news stories, including Women and Money – 4 Myths and 5 Money Tips for Women.

I’m against any and all forms of discrimination, workplace or otherwise, but I was appalled last night to watch NBC’s Savannah Guthrie tell a story using math that wasn’t just fuzzy – it was flat-out wrong.

In this news story, Gutherie talks about the White House report issued yesterday called Women in America [PDF], which reveals the changing role of women in American society in areas ranging from income equality to domestic violence.

After offering up some good news – that women are now just as likely as men to have a college degree – Guthrie gives us the bad news, saying, “But the report says women are still paid about 75 percent of what their male counterparts are paid.”

That’s followed by three soundbites. The first comes from Valerie Jarrett, White House senior adviser. She says, “It’s one thing to know something intuitively. It’s very different to have evidence that actually backs it up. This report gives us that evidence.”

Her next soundbite comes from a woman on the street: “Disgusting…disgusting…aggravating…annoying. I find it all the time when I’m job hunting.”

Then this one from another woman on the street: “I don’t understand why that still exists in 2011.”

Now, let’s stop here. What did you just hear? Did you hear that women make only 75 percent of what men make for the same job?  That’s certainly what’s implied: After all, the reporter said, “Women are still paid about 75 percent of what their male counterparts are paid.” But, in fact, that’s not what the numbers she’s quoting say.

The White House report presumably drew its numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. In this report, the Bureau provides some detail:

For full-time, year-round workers, the 2009 American Community Survey median earnings for women were 78.2 percent of men’s earnings – $35,549 compared with $45,485. As compared with 2008, median earnings for men were up from $45,161, median earnings for women were up from $35,104, and the ratio of women’s earnings to men’s earnings was up from 77.7.

In other words, the average overall annual earnings for women are less than the average overall annual earnings for men. What the Census Bureau doesn’t say is that women earn 75 percent of what men earn for the same job.

The reason women have lower average earnings than men is a complex topic (there’s a ton of information at this Wikipedia page) and some of it may certainly be due to wage discrimination.  But other factors – like male-dominated professions (mechanics) earning more than female dominated ones (cosmetologists) – may also play a part.

Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not suggesting that sex-based wage discrimination is nonexistent in America. But for a national newscast to imply that females are being paid significantly less than their male counterparts for the same job, then stopping people on the street to get their reaction, is not only irresponsible and sensationalistic journalism: It diverts attention from a useful discussion.

Bottom line? Women overall take home less money than men every year: fact. Women only earn 75 cents for every dollar men earn for the same job: fiction.

Stacy Johnson

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