I’ve had this sitting in my drafts for a while and have decided to release it in honor of equal pay day. I lead off with a somewhat out-dated article, but I have seen basically the same arguments echoed on twitter today so I think it is still relevant.
President Obama repeated the spurious gender wage gap statistic in his State of the Union address. “Today,” he said, “women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.”
What is wrong and embarrassing is the President of the United States reciting a massively discredited factoid. The 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. When all these relevant factors are taken into consideration, the wage gap narrows to about five cents. And no one knows if the five cents is a result of discrimination or some other subtle, hard-to-measure difference between male and female workers. In its fact-checking column on the State of the Union, the Washington Post included the president’s mention of the wage gap in its list of dubious claims. “There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women… make it difficult to make simple comparisons.”
If the President had said, “Controlling for occupational differences, positions, education, job tenure and hours worked per week, women only earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns” then it would be fair to say that he was using a wildly discredited factoid. Perhaps that’s how the average person will interpret what he said. Perhaps he’s even being intentionally misleading. Either way, we definitely shouldn’t take solace in the fact that the “correct” figure is five cents and we shouldn’t ignore the 77 cent figure either.
If we were to do a blind study of wages and we found that Group A was earning only 77% as much per hour as Group B, we’d be pretty interested in why that was. If we looked into the data and found that Group A tended to work as Psychologists, Educators, Counselors, Social Workers etc. and Group B tended to work as Engineers, Mathematicians, Computer Scientists and Doctors, we’d want to figure out what was causing these two groups to sort into such different professions. If we found out that Group A has blue eyes and Group B has brown eyes, we wouldn’t be satisfied concluding that blue eyed people just had different preferences. When we know Group A happens to have a long history of oppression at the hands of Group B, our hypothesis must be that the history of oppression is playing a role.
My chosen profession, software development, is one of these careers that women just don’t seem to “prefer”. Software development pays well. It offers a good deal of flexibility, plenty of opportunity for advancement, intellectual and creative challenges, high status, and job security among many other benefits. Obviously individual preferences vary, but to think that it would be normal for any sufficiently large subset of the human population to collectively not prefer this job is completely bonkers. Yet, we know that a very small proportion of women pursue careers in software development.
The reason few women become software developers is that many men in my field (and I suspect in many of the other higher paying fields that are also responsible for the gender gap) create an environment that is intimidating for women if not outright hostile. Not only that, but our culture teaches girls from a very young age what roles are acceptable for them to play in society. It is impossible to separate individual choices from these cultural factors.
The 77 cent figure is important because it is a good measurement of the extent of these cultural factors. We have no reason to believe that the general population of women should be earning less than the general population of men. To the extent that we know this is the case, we have every reason to believe that it is because our culture has a long history of female oppression that we have yet to overcome.