Debunking the Wage Gap Myth

On April 12th, feminist organizations across the United States acknowledged Equal Pay Day, a date which symbolizes just how far into the new calendar year a woman must work in order to earn what a man did in the previous year. The White House reports that a typical full-time working woman in the U.S. in 2014 made only 79 cents for every dollar that a full-time working man earned. Based on this data and “decades of research,” the White House has concluded that women face a “real and persistent problem” of pay discrimination across the country. But upon closer examination, the gender wage gap reveals itself to be based far more in fiction than in fact.

First, the oft-cited 79-cent figure offers a woefully incomplete picture of the actual disparity or lack thereof between the wages of men and women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates the popular figure by taking the median annual earnings of all full-time male and female workers and dividing them into one another. Though this approach gives us a gross approximation of how much more men earn than women on average, it fails—as the BLS freely admits—to “control for many factors that can be significant in explaining earnings differences.”

One of these factors is hours worked. Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics only includes full-time workers—those employees who work 35 or more hours a week—it does not distinguish between those who work beyond this cutoff. This difference turns out to be significant, as men tend to work longer hours. According to the Department of Labor, 25 percent of full-time male workers spent 41 or more hours on the job, while only 14 percent of female full-time workers did the same. And when only men and women who work more than 40 hours a week are compared, the wage gap shrinks by more than half to only ten cents.

Differences in occupation and experience also explain the wage differential between men and women. In 2013, PayScale—an online compensation information company—conducted a survey of men and women across over 120 different occupational categories. The survey grouped the salaries of the respondents by occupation and level of experience and then found the median pay for each gender within each category, thereby isolating men and women with similar jobs and experience and comparing them side-by-side. According to The Atlantic, PayScale’s study showed that the wage gap “nearly evaporates” when workers of similar experience and occupation are compared. As PayScale’s chief economist Katie Bardaro noted, “the gender wage gap disappears for most positions” when education and management responsibilities  are considered.

PayScale’s survey also uncovered a late-career wage gap between women and men. Though both sexes command similar wages at the start of their careers, female wages tend to fall behind those of men over time. But this differential is less evidentiary of pay discrimination against women than it is a result of men and women fulfilling different career preferences and making different life choices. For example, an international study conducted in 2013 by the career networking site LinkedIn found that nearly two-thirds of professional women view “finding the right balance between work and personal life” as their definition of success in the workplace, while less than half prioritize “earning a high salary.” And as Carrie Lukas from the Independent Women’s Forum discussed in Forbes Magazine, women value jobs which offer “regular hours, more comfortable conditions, little travel, and greater personal fulfillment,” and sacrifice a higher salary in order to obtain these attractive occupational benefits.

But according to Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University, men feel differently, preferring “income growth” to “temporal flexibility” in the workplace. This is part of the reason why the ten most dangerous occupations in the United States—all jobs which pay well relative to the education level they require but involve an extraordinary risk of bodily harm or death—are all male-dominated, with all but one of these jobs having more than a 94 percent male workforce. As Mark Perry from the American Enterprise Institute cheekily notes, males are so heavily represented in the most dangerous occupations that the next “Equal Occupational Fatality Day”—the day on which the number of work-related deaths of women will match the number which men experienced last calendar year—will be over thirteen years from now.

The different preferences of males and females manifest themselves in other ways too. In college, women tend to select majors which lead to lower-paying careers, while men do the opposite. According to research by Georgetown University economist Anthony Carnevale, only one of the ten lowest-paying majors—“theology and religious vocations”—is chosen more often by men, while “pharmacy sciences and administration” is the only one of the top ten highest-paying degrees which is majority female. But as I mentioned before, women tend to value having a meaningful job more than earning a high income, which explains their dominance of social work professions, like psychology and education, which generally are less lucrative than other professions.

The most significant difference in preferences between men and women, however, has to do with children. Because women opt to stay home and raise their children more often than men do, the median wage of women late in their careers does not keep pace with that of men, who usually decide to become or remain the principal breadwinners of their household. But when a man voluntarily exits the workforce for several years to raise his child, he cannot reasonably expect when he returns to command a wage equal to or higher than that of a woman who stayed at her job during the man’s absence and continued to acquire experience. The same holds true for the working woman who decides to leave her job in favor of rearing her child. Leaving the workforce to have and raise a child is a choice, a choice which carries foreseeable economic consequences and a nondiscriminatory impact.

Having accounted for the various variables which contribute to the wage gap—hours worked, occupation and experience, and different preferences—we now turn to the critical final argument made by progressives with respect to the gender wage gap. By this line of reasoning, the earnings differential between women and men is reflective of a “real and persistent problem” of pay discrimination in the United States which, as the White House puts it, “continues to shortchange American women and their families.” Even if economics can explain some or even most of the wage gap by “factoring in the kind of work people do” or “qualifications such as education and experience,” discrimination is the cause of whatever pay disparity remains. Therefore, the argument concludes, pay inequity must be addressed through even more sweeping government mandates and wage controls.

Single, childless women and men are the ideal sample with which to evaluate this claim. If systematic pay discrimination actually exists, women who have not yet raised a child or made any particularly dramatic life choices which can alter their earnings should have lower wages than men. But according to Time Magazine, an analysis of 2,000 communities in cities across the United States revealed that the median full-time salaries of unmarried, childless women “are an average of eight percent higher” than those of similarly situated men. In Atlanta and Memphis, this wage gap increases to a whopping 20 percent. In New York City, it is 17 percent. Coupling these figures with PayScale’s finding that “the gender wage gap disappears” when the education and responsibilities of young workers are considered, the claim that pay discrimination against women is a persistent problem which requires dramatic federal remedies simply does not hold water.

Equal Pay Day embodies a disingenuous and misleading narrative about the gender wage gap in the United States. The oft-cited 21-cent wage gap figure does not account for a multitude of factors such as occupation, experience, career preferences, and major life choices which, when combined, virtually eliminate the wage differential between men and women. And with no substantive evidence of systematic pay discrimination against women in sight, it seems that January 1st would make for a much better date for Equal Pay Day.

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10 thoughts on “Debunking the Wage Gap Myth”

  1. You failed to tackle the main problem that follows from your analysis: why is it that in this economy one has to choose between a family and a successful, fulfilling career? Clearly this is a gendered problem at LEAST for physiological reasons, considering that pregnancy and the demands of postpartum care place a heavier burden on mothers than fathers. But I’d challenge you to consider that there are other reasons this is a gendered problem – have you not considered that other, non-physiological barriers exist for women wanting to advance in their careers while having a family? Stigmas about breastfeeding in the workplace? Derision from male colleagues or superiors who see female professionals as less serious about their careers when they become mothers?
    And isn’t it also a problem that men are working longer hours (yes, often in dangerous jobs) without sufficient options for paternity leave? My point is that a family shouldn’t be an obstacle to career growth, and that for physiological and sociopolitical reasons this unfairly affects women – but it also sucks for men. Without even probing into your (I suspect statistically problematic) analysis of gendered career/academic choices, I’m really not compelled that you have even scratched the surface of the “wage gap” problem.

    1. Why do people always say they “””suspect””” the statistics are “problematic?” What a total buzzword. Why are there never any rebuttals of the stats? I’m sure there’s one unbiased statistician out there who can debunk these claims. I’ll even settle for a biased one.

      1. Because I’m a hardworking student with better things to do than double-check the experimental details of the studies he cites and then re-test his hypotheses, especially considering that there was a much more nuanced way for me to discredit his argument?

        Anyway, here’s the white house report if you yourself have the time and oddly obsessive investment to work on the stats: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/equal_pay_issue_brief_final.pdf

    2. Before commenting on an article asking “why” an economy does something or questioning stats from peer-reviewed academic papers, I would recommend you take some econ classes in your time at university. Labor economics at CMC is particularly fascinating, and actually supports the conclusions reached by this article. I’ll add that labor econ at CMC is taught by a single mom, who is actually the head of the CMC econ department, because I’m sure you will just otherwise claim that the class is taught by a sexist white male.

      I find it hilarious that you say the stats are problematic, but then are so quick to post a link to the White House report. Seems like you don’t care as much about the statistical process as much as having the results support your views. And, for the record, the research that supports Matthew’s conclusion is actually from peer-reviewed papers from respected economics journals, so, as much as you say that you are a “hardworking student”, I don’t think your claim carries much weight. Additionally, I would add that the White House report is not peer-reviewed, nor is it a respected source in the economics field.

      With respects to family vs. career, it is simply unsustainable, not to mention totalitarian, to expect an economy where one doesn’t have to give up some part of your career to raise a family. While you might think that capitalism is “unfair”, I recommend that you study the example of the Soviet Union or North Korea to see how “fair” a state-socialist system where both men and women do not have to choose between work and family is.

      If you think Sweden is the type of country the US should emulate, I would like you to know that the Swedes are actually in the process of reducing their generous maternity/paternity leave because they have found it to be unsustainable. You should also know that women still are the primary care-givers in Sweden, and that they exit the workforce in larger numbers than men. Considering that Sweden has a tiny (not to mention, shrinking) population with a very frugal culture and a (worryingly) low birth rate, how do you expect the massive, growing US population with an obsession with credit cards and mortgages to sustain such a program and not fall into trillions of more dollars of debt with no significant social change?

      1. Right, I linked the white house report because it includes the analysis which he is trying to debunk. In order to test his refutations in a statistically sound way, one would need to review the studies in question (which themselves were published elsewhere…of course a white house report isn’t “peer-reviewed;” it’s not an academic document…and for the record there are a dime a dozen ****** peer-reviewed journals in the world; publication=/=truth) and probably weigh these findings with those from the other studies he cites. But I was upfront about not entering into a statistics bickering fest, so let’s go ahead and say his analyses are sound enough. My argument still holds.

        Where are you coming from with this “have to choose btw career and family” ****? You want to live in a world like that? Absolutely ridiculous. We should aspire to live in a world where people can have meaningful careers without sacrificing a meaningful family life. Please note that I did not offer a broad critique of American capitalism in my comment; you seem to think that I did. Hope this helps clarify.

        Re: Sweden, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say? “I bet you’re another one of those liberals who jacks off to Swedish domestic policy but did you know that paid leave is expensive, PS women are bad at careers in Sweden too”? I don’t really see how this gets at anything I was saying about how there are many multifaceted problems encountered by mothers seeking to advance in their careers. The thrust of this CI article was “there is not a problem.” My comment said, “there is a problem.”

    3. @t
      You state: “You failed to tackle the main problem that follows from your analysis: why is it that in this economy one has to choose between a family and a successful, fulfilling career?”

      Maybe, because it is simply REALITY.
      Your question is the same as someone asking: “Why shouldn’t someone, who makes Minimum Wage, be able to afford the same quality of vehicle as someone who makes $200 an hour?!”
      Answer: Because of the CHOICES in life each have made.

      You state: “Clearly this is a gendered problem at LEAST for physiological reasons, considering that pregnancy and the demands of postpartum care place a heavier burden on mothers than fathers.”

      How many fathers, do you personally know, that have chosen to give up their careers in order to raise their children? (I’d wager that the number is countable on one hand.)

      Now, how many mothers have you known that either gave up, or “put on hold”, their careers in order to raise their children? (This group is quite a bit larger isn’t it. And this consists only of only the tiny percentage of the population that you personally know.)
      When a woman puts her career on hold, in the real world, she falls behind in time on the job, experience, business contacts and skill levels deteriorate. (Think about it! Would you rather have a serious operation preformed by a surgeon who “did 5 of these same procedures last week, all had good outcomes” or . . . “I’m just getting back after taking time off to be with my baby. This will be the first of this type of procedure I’ve preformed in 5 years. But I’m sure you’ll be just fine . . .”?)

      You state: “But I’d challenge you to consider that there are other reasons this is a gendered problem – have you not considered that other, non-physiological barriers exist for women wanting to advance in their careers while having a family? Stigmas about breastfeeding in the workplace? Derision from male colleagues or superiors who see female professionals as less serious about their careers when they become mothers?”

      Again, reality rears it’s ugly head.
      How many males (sorry but they’re not men) have you personally known, that have left a woman he got pregnant, because he didn’t want the responsibility? How does that number compare to the women you’ve know, who after giving birth, simply walked away? (Pretty big difference in the numbers of the two groups aren’t they?)
      Women are, as a whole, more concerned about their children than men are because they share a deeper connection, they were both actually ONE BODY at one time. While there are caring men, for better or worse, they will NEVER have the same connection with their child as the mother.

      You ask: “And isn’t it also a problem that men are working longer hours (yes, often in dangerous jobs) without sufficient options for paternity leave?”

      Because Life actually consists of a series of CHOICES and realities.
      Why don’t women required to have 30% more upper body strength than most women currently possess?
      Why are so few women, percentage-wise, garbage collectors?
      Why are so few women, percentage-wise, working the counter at fast food restaurants instead of the grills?
      Why are so few women, percentage-wise, surgeons?
      Why are so few women, percentage-wise, sewer workers?
      Why are so few women, percentage-wise, slaughterhouse workers?
      Why are so few women, percentage-wise, garbage collectors?
      Why are so few women, percentage-wise, dead animal collectors?
      Why are so few women, percentage-wise, “roughnecks” on oil drilling rigs?
      Most women CAN do these job, so why don’t they CHOOSE to do them?
      Are you suggesting that women should be FORCED to take these less desirable jobs, you know, “for EQUALITY!”?

      Why is it that as a 6’2″ 240 man, if I were ever in a car accident and was trapped in a, starting to burn, vehicle I would feel more confident in seeing several 6’+ 200+ male 1st Responders; than I would be to see several 4’10, 95+ pounds female 1st Responders? Reality maybe?

      You state: “My point is that a family shouldn’t be an obstacle to career growth, and that for physiological and sociopolitical reasons this unfairly affects women – but it also sucks for men.”

      Maybe if an equal number of men had the children instead of just the women, that could be addressed equally.
      And if frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump their butts when they jumped . . . but again, that’s not the reality of the situation.

      You state: “Without even probing into your (I suspect statistically problematic) analysis of gendered career/academic choices, I’m really not compelled that you have even scratched the surface of the “wage gap” problem.”

      Sadly the majority of the “wage gap problem” boils down to three things: CHOICES, reality and personal responsibility.

      1. You’re raising a lot of rebuttals to things I never said, e.g. the EMT/wage differences among jobs stuff. As for the stuff you said that was responsive to my comment, it’s all founded on your suggestion that fathers generally don’t care about raising their family as much as mothers do, and I can’t take that seriously.

    4. Our economy is based on hard work which is what has made America the country people look to for technology, high standards of living, justice, etc. Raising children takes time too. Life is all about choices and often to do a few things well, we have to lessen our involvement in other things. Any good government will allow its people to make those choices. As a woman, I can choose to raise my children with someone who can work hard so I don’t have to. Or I can choose someone who wants to be a stay at home dad. Or I can choose someone whose income allows us to both work part time. But the government cannot wave a magic want and make everything perfect for me and using flawed statistics is dishonest, not progressive.

      1. I am not anti-hard work…I am pro-working hard at your job and in your family. A society in which this is a zero-sum game is pathological.

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