The gender-pay-gap debate has been rocking the online newspapers and blogosphere in the past few months. I’ve become especially interested since the presidential debates; I had no idea why, on something seemingly so clear-cut, there was no consensus reached over what was actually going on. After some research, it’s became really clear why both sides are equally insistent the other is wrong. No matter of “fact checking” will really resolve the issue, because neither side is lying. It’s just a matter of which facts and statistics each side chooses to look at.
The liberal argument that I both hear and read the most is simply that women are being payed around .77 cents on the male dollar in this country. Although estimates of this number vary, this statistic seems to make a clear case that gender equality in the workplace is far from a done deal. The most common conservative argument is that a big chunk of this discrepancy can be explained away by the types of jobs generally held by women compared to men, and the difference in amount of hours worked. Interestingly, both arguments are valid, but there is an important nuance that neither side brings up: that both the “explained and “unexplained” elements of the pay gap are very important to look at.
It’s true that much of the gender pay gap can be explained by women working different jobs and fewer hours (more part-time and less full-time) than men. For example, in the field of medicine women with doctorates tend to work as pediatricians more often than cardiologists (who are higher paid). But is this the whole story? The Congressional Joint Economic Committee has found that there is an “unexplained” pay gap that still accounts for 5-7% of the difference across all jobs in America. This is after every other factor has been accounted for, including job differences and hour differences. Although the “explained” pay gap has dramatically decreased in this country in the past hundred years, there has consistently been a 5-7% disparity that cannot be explained by anything other than sexism in the job market.
The liberal media might be misrepresenting its figures by simply saying that women make .77 cents on the male dollar. It might not be wrong, but it can be misleading; when the number is present by candidates or news outlets, it’s never presented with any disclaimer about the shortcomings of the statistic. In an Obama campaign ad, titled “The First Law”, the narrator says “Women [are] paid 77 cents on the dollar for the same work as men”, and it has been criticized for not being more clear about what that number actually means. Just as misleading is the conservative argument that the pay gap can be explained away, while they ignore the fact that just about every review by the Congressional Joint Economic committee over the years has an “unexplained” pay gap attributed to gender discrimination.
It seems both sides like to play with the numbers, but we shouldn’t forget that there is a big difference in the reasons that these two parties sensationalize the statistics. The democratic party is trying to draw attention to an issue of inequality, and highlight the fact that the battle isn’t won yet. The republican party is trying to shut its eyes, stick its head in the sand, and repeat the mantra that we are in a “post-gender inequality, post-racial” world. Acts like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act have been vehemently opposed by senate republicans, namely because they felt it would bring up unnecessary lawsuits for a problem that doesn’t exist. That act isn’t a matter of giving women an unfair advantage over men, it simply allows employees to file lawsuits past the typical 180-day statute of limitations if they notice a pay discrepancy. It’s not affirmative action for an entire gender, it’s the right to earn what your fellow worker is earning for the same job.
Republicans will try to attack the fact that “77¢” is often used out of context, when even the “explained” pay gap indicates educational discrepancies and an unequal burden of motherhood and child raising. We should ask why, for example, there are differences in levels of education and why the burden of raising a child is still heavily on women. We should ask why the looming decision of motherhood makes it such that women disproportionately commit to more flexible careers that pay slightly less. Does the “explained” pay gap directly indicate workplace discrimination? Not necessarily. Is it important to look at when trying to figure out why there’s still gender inequality? Of course it is.
Whether one party or the other is misrepresenting statistics is not the issue, both parties are guilty on that count. I personally think it all comes down to this: republicans are using their arguments to smother equality for women and minorities, while they continue to champion the old “man works, women cooks” nuclear christian family archetype. Meanwhile, democrats are trying to accord women and men equal opportunity in the job market. One party wants to have a serious discussion on workplace equality, and the other party wants to pretend there’s nothing to fix. Politicians will be politicians and news outlets may have their biases, but it’s impossible to ignore what each party is trying to accomplish.
“Explained” and “Unexplained” wage gap references:
Obama ad, and context: