The Facts Behind the Call for Equal Pay

By Christine Miranda, Communications Intern

Seventy-seven. If you pay attention to the periodic media buzz over the gender wage gap, that number is probably familiar to you: For every dollar a man is paid in the United States, a woman receives 77 cents. The statistic is ubiquitous; personal blogs and professional journals alike cite it as evidence of either a genuine, sex-based discrepancy or a heinous conspiracy to propagate liberal urban legend. Accordingly, recent debate over the Paycheck Fairness Act hinges on this number and its legitimacy.

Now, I am not an expert on the Paycheck Fairness Act. I’m 18, sitting down to write this blog post on an expensive computer paid for by my parents. I attend a fancy school with a hefty price tag, and earn the occasional paycheck not out of economic necessity but rather the intermittent desire to test drive my teenage independence. Still, my inexperience doesn’t preclude me from eventually feeling the social and economic weight of workplace politics–so I decided to investigate a little.

The 77 cents statistic, so infamous that most articles no longer credit its source, derives from the ratio of male and female median annual earnings as published by the U.S. Census Bureau, most recently in September 2011. Though this number has risen significantly from about 60 percent in 1960, the data has since stagnated, budging only about one percentage point in the last decade.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases similar information in Highlights on Women’s Earnings, a report based on median weekly earnings. The two measures, annual and weekly, have slightly different parameters and often differ by a few points (annual data includes self-employed workers, while weekly data includes full-time workers who only work part of the year), but they tend to show the same trend in the long term.

In 2010, for instance, Labor Statistics indicated that “women earned 81 percent of the median weekly earnings of their male counterparts.” Their report also adds a needed layer of complexity by highlighting race as an influential factor. To a white man’s dollar, a white woman is paid 80 cents; a black woman, 70; an Asian woman, 91; and a Latina/Hispanic woman, 60. (Within each of these racial groups, men are paid more than women.)

Echoing the familiar insistence that correlation does not imply causation, opponents of legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act attribute this glut of data to “lifestyle choices” and other confounding factors rather than discrimination. Women work different jobs with different hours and take off time to have kids, conditions that inherently dictate that they will make less money, apparently. Never mind the cultural backdrop that both influences the choices women make and governs how compatible those choices are with the workforce.

Ample evidence within the Labor Statistics report testifies to a real gender-based difference in earnings, even when variation in career choice and number of hours worked is taken into consideration. Women workers are more likely to hold “professional occupations,” but less likely to have higher paying jobs within those fields. Women with 40-hour work weeks still earn only 87 percent of what men do on the same schedule.

The Paycheck Fairness Act’s proposal is modest. Principally, it equips all employees to be their own advocates and increases employers’ responsibility to prove that payment decisions aren’t discriminatory. The issue of paycheck parity may not be quite as simple as the rallying cry of 77 cents makes it seem–dealing with the vestiges of oppression never is. But the appropriate response to complex social problems is not denial. Perhaps if and when conservative leaders acknowledge that a wage gap does exist, a more ambitious approach can be commenced to level the playing field.

This post is part of the #HERvotes blog carnival on Paycheck Fairness.

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