April 19 2014
Look up the old saying, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics," and you'll see this as exhibit A: Women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.
Politicians use the figure because it fits the "women as victims in need of a savior" narrative and it provides them campaign material during the election season. The statistic serves to justify proposed federal legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act and as a verbal bludgeon against anyone who dares oppose the bill.
Produced by comparing the median earnings of men and women from Census Bureau data, the 77 cents on the dollar statistic misleads through omission. When one takes into account men and women's choices regarding occupations, college majors, occupational risk and time in the job, the wage gap all but disappears. A 2009 Labor Department study found the wage gap is between 4.8 and 7 cents when such choices are taken into consideration.
What are these choices? Women tend to have fewer accumulated hours and years in their occupation than men who do the same work. A full-time male employee tends to work 8 to 10 percent more hours than a fulltime female employee. Women often take time off or work part-time when caring for young children and this impacts their income.
In short, they choose time over money.
A report by Time magazine found that a single woman in her 20s in Dallas makes $1.18 to a man's $1. I suspect that if these women were tracked into their 30s, the gap would reverse course as their priorities changed.
Time in the job isn't the only factor. A 2009 study found that men choose college majors based primarily on income potential while women consider other attributes in addition to financial benefits such as parental approval and potential enjoyment. Money isn't everything, after all. Many of us consider factors such as emotional fulfillment, contribution to the community, opportunity for creativity and collaboration, and time flexibility when looking at job opportunities. Some jobs which are financially lucrative are, frankly, soulless drudgery.
Other research shows that women are less likely to negotiate for higher pay. One study found that nearly eight times as many male as female MBA graduates from Carnegie Mellon negotiated their salaries. Only 7 percent of women had attempted to negotiate that first salary. Over half of their male peers asked for more; thus their resulting salaries were $4,000 higher. When I graduated from college, I did not know I was supposed to negotiate my pay and I missed several opportunities until I learned that important lesson.
There is a lesson here, as well. It was recently reported that Sen. Mark Udall pays his female staffers 84 cents for every dollar he pays his male staff members. On the surface, it would appear he is discriminating against women. Rep. Cory Gardner, who pays female staffers an average of $1.04 to every dollar that he pays men, appears to be discriminating against men. The statistics could, instead, reflect decisions by individual staffers regarding work hours, work experience and negotiation strategies.
Clearly the situation is more complex than the 77-cent statistic and demagoguery would suggest. While there are still a few sexist dinosaurs out there, most men do not fit that description. Likewise, most women are not hapless victims but are intelligent decision-makers balancing work and life's demands. Could we do a better job coaching women in high school and college to negotiate their salaries? Certainly. Do we need more government regulation, more lawsuits and more misleading statistics? Not if we value the truth and each other.
Reprinted from the Denver Post's 1/20/14 edition