Equal Pay, Equal Work, Equal Opportunity

Equal Pay, Equal Work, Equal Opportunity

The statistic that women make 77 cents for every dollar men make is back in the news, mainly because "Equal Pay Day" is next Tuesday.

The number is calculated simply by dividing the average earnings of female full-time workers by those of male full-time workers. Conservatives have been pointing out for years that this methodology leaves a lot to be desired -- it doesn't factor in differences in occupational choice, hours worked, etc. At AEIdeas, Mark J. Perry has a nice explanation of how the gap shrinks -- and sometimes disappears -- as you introduce additional controls into the data. He passes along this chart (using 2012 government data that place the overall gap at 81 cents on the dollar):

Obama adviser Betsey Stevenson recently offered a defense of the stat, though, when challenged by a reporter:

When people come out and say that's not a fair number, well, what really is a fair number? You brought up "women's choices." Well, some women's choices come about because they're being discriminated against. Some of women's choices come because they experience sexism. Some of women's choices come because they are disproportionately balancing the needs of work and family. Which of these choices should we consider legitimate choices, and which of them should we consider things that we have a societal obligation to try to mitigate, to alleviate some of these constraints so that they can make different choices? A lot of people will say things like, let's control for occupational choices. But the research is showing us that women are choosing occupations which penalize them the least for taking time out of work.

If there was less discrimination, if there was more flexibility in work, you wouldn't see women necessarily choosing the same occupations. So why should I take the wage gap holding occupation constant? If we change society, we reduce discrimination, we're not going to hold occupational choice constant -- women are going to choose different occupations.

I agree that the 77 cents on the dollar is not all due to discrimination. No one is trying to say that it is. But you have to point to some number in order for people to understand the facts. And what it represents is the fact that women on average are put in situations every day that for a variety of reasons mean they earn less. Much of what we need to do to close that gap is to change the constraints that women face. And there are things we haven't tried.

Of course, discrimination and schedule inflexibility are two very different things -- the former is illegal and widely condemned, while it's entirely debatable whether the government should be involved in the latter. Some fields are more conducive to flexible schedules than others. And more to the point, it's impossible for "taking time out of work" not to affect one's pay, considering that work is, by definition, what an employee is being paid to do. Whether a worker is paid by the hour or with a salary that reflects the value they provide, all else being equal, they'll make more money if they work more. Yes, more flexibility in this regard might help women choose different occupations -- but if they're choosing those occupations because of a new opportunity to "tak[e] time out of work," they'll still make less than their male colleagues who don't.

Some of Stevenson's comments also pertain to the decisions made within families, with women taking on a disproportionate share of childrearing responsibilities. It may be that we have a "societal obligation" to mitigate this disparity, though such a conclusion requires ideological assumptions about the role of government and, to some extent, factual assumptions about human biology.

Stevenson's remarks also raise questions about how public figures should use statistics. As my old National Review colleague Patrick Brennan points out, her defense has the whiff of a "noble lie" about it: She concedes the gap isn't due entirely to discrimination, but claims it "represents" an underlying truth.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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