The White House of late has been peddling the claim that women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar for the same work. Elizabeth Plank and Soraya Chemaly from PolicyMic ran with this dubious statistic, creating the hashtag #withoutthewagegapIwould that circled the Internet with statements such as: “without the wage gap I would be able to buy my sister a house.” Phrases of that ilk are meant to elicit an immediate and visceral reaction. Were it not for the wage discrimination, women’s finances would dramatically improve. But would they, really? There has been strong blowback against that statistic, with substantial evidence showing it to be incomplete and applied to incongruous employment situations. Misrepresenting data that affects half of the population, even if well-intentioned, risk framing the problem incorrectly, making the path to a viable solution much steeper.
Christina Hoff Summers of AEI, writing at The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post, crunched the numbers and determined that when relevant variables are controlled for (such as occupation, time in the workplace, and college degree) the pay gap between men and women shrank from 23 cents to between five and seven. It’s not yet clear whether or not discrimination accounts for that last nickel, but it disarms a would-be political platform purporting to give underpaid women their retribution. Matt Yglesias attempts to argue that statistical controls identify discrimination rather than disproving it, but fails to explain how the wage gap is caused by discrimination.
One explanation for the gap is the professions that women choose: women are more likely to take jobs in the caretaking and artistic fields while men are more likely to elect for professions requiring technical expertise. More women are graduating from college, but fewer of those graduates are getting degrees in STEM fields, where the most lucrative jobs are. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, since 1990, the amount of men earning computer science degrees has nearly doubled, while the amount of women earning degrees has stayed the same after a brief bump in the early 2000s. Feminist groups like the National Organization for Women claim that this self-selection is not a woman’s choice at all, but pernicious gender stereotypes predetermining her career path. While there may be little data to support this, but there is significant evidence to support the idea that the main culprit responsible for women’s inability to keep pace with a men’s earning power is the bearing of children.
Having children is the biggest career “mistake” a woman can make. She risks losing not only her previous earning power but nearly any chance of professional advancement thereafter. Regardless of industry, the “mommy track” is a limbo on the margins of the professional world, where mothers can be shunted into a second-class tier of advancement. A study from the University of Chicago showed that childless women and men had comparable incomes in the same industry, until women had children. After that, men’s wages increased by 75 percent. A similar study referenced by Hannah Rosin in Slate monitored male and female MBA graduates of University of Chicago’s business school that yielded similar results: comparable salaries until about 10 to 15 years later, when men pulled ahead by a nearly 40 percent increase in earnings. Women are still expected to be the primary caretakers of their children, and voluntarily scale back their responsibilities at the workplace. Fewer hours translate into smaller paychecks, and fewer opportunities for promotion later on.
The fact that the U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not offer paid parental leave punishes women who participate in the natural experience of having a child. With the rising costs of childcare, and without the security of regular wages, the message that employers are sending women is that they are no longer valuable once they become pregnant.
We don’t need to close the wage gap; we need to remove the stigma that treats pregnant women and new mothers like pariahs, and the economic structures that punish childbearing. At minimum, we need to stop pretending that the wage gap is that Worker A and Worker B at the assembly line, performing the exact same task for the same number of hours, yet Worker B takes home 77 cents of what Worker A makes because Worker B is a woman. That’s not what the statistics suggest, nor is it the landscape women are facing. If we want to help women, we should start by fully understanding the complexity of the challenges they face.