Pay equity is a tricky thing. On its face, it says men and women should not get paid differently to do the same jobs. Under the surface, it's a philosophical tug-of-war about whether career choices or unexposed biases actually impacts earnings. Add politics, and you have a ready-made fight on your hands.
That's what happened Thursday when the conservative Independent Women's Forum issued a scathing response to a report from the liberal-leaning American Association of University Women that depicted an 18 percent pay gap between male and female college graduates in their first year out of school. According to the report, 6.6 percent of the wage differences could not explained by different choices between men and women–college major, hours worked, industry entered.
"The AAUW's report on the so-called gender pay gap is laughable. With less than two weeks until Election Day, this women's organization is less concerned with closing the so-called wage gap than goosing Democratic turnout," said IWF Executive Director Sabrina Schaeffer in the statement.
Schaeffer is co-author of a book Liberty is No War on Women, which argues that the political "war on women" is a fraud. She thinks the very concept turns women into victims. She also has engaged in the debate about pay equity over and over again with groups like AAUW.
AAUW, for its part, is actively courting millennial women (ages 18 to 31) to vote in the upcoming election. "We always want to make sure women's issues are heard. We've been pleased to see that conversation being had. We know that what are going to drive that is the candidates know that women are coming to the polls," said AAUW Executive Director Lisa Maatz.
The AAUW pay equity report was picked up by dozens of news outlets. Maatz attributes the media attention to the pay equity question that President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney received last week in their town hall debate. It also doesn't hurt that women are a major focus in the presidential election.
Maatz said the timing of the report's release, two weeks before the election, was an accident. The study authors wanted to release it earlier, and were actually worried that they would get scooped on the findings, because of a backup in AAUW's publication shop.
"If they want to label me as politically savvy, I'll take that any day," Maatz said of the electoral edge given to the study. Of IWF, she added, "The louder that they sputter, the bigger an affirmation it is that our research is right on target."
Much to IWF's annoyance, the news reports largely ignored the 6.6 percent unexplained pay gap, focusing instead on the larger pay differential. IWF Managing Director Carrie Lukas (and co-author of the War on Women book) wrote in a National Review blog post that the headline could have read: "Study Confirms Men and Women's Choices Drive Differences in Pay. …Alas, you have to read well into the report summary and most of the news stories to get to this key finding."
"The problem, as we see it, is it's a really horrible way to view society in the workplace," Schaeffer said in an interview. "Groups like [AAUW] very often get upset that when you control for different things, choice major, time taken out of the workplace. …Discrimination may explain some of the differences. If we're going to have a real conversation about this, then we should have an honest one about all the possible reasons."
This point of view is common among conservative women, many of whom contributed to a recent feature article in National Journal about the status of women in Washington. They feel that complaints about unequal pay and lack of opportunity for women are overblown, ignoring the real sacrifices and accomplishments of women who succeed in the workplace.
The more liberal, traditional women's movement sees the wage gap as part of an ongoing civil rights struggle that has yet to be resolved. The AAUW study shows that education alone cannot be the great equalizer in the workplace. Maatz said college women are frequently surprised to learn that any pay gap exists. "In college, they're very much in control of their destiny. To them, that's what it's going to look like when they graduate. too. When we tell them this, we're arming them ahead of time, so they're not so surprised," she said.
Particularly for younger women, the pay gap quickly becomes an economic problem. They could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a career if they don't successfully negotiate a fair salary for their first job. This is also one area where Maatz and Schaeffer can agree: women need help navigating the sometimes treacherous work world to make sure, frankly, that they don't get screwed. That's why AAUW offers courses in salary negotiation. Both AAUW and IWF are active on social media discussing women voters and the issues that affect them.