The Pay Gap: Behind the Numbers

April 28, 2014President Obama recently came under fire when he claimed in an Equal Pay Day speech that the average American woman makes 77 cents for every dollar a man makes—a gap of 23 cents.

The President didn’t conjure this number from thin air. He was quoting a Census Bureau statistic comparing women’s earnings to men’s. But his critics countered with numbers from the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Pew Research Center, arguing that the “real” gap was much smaller: between just 16 and 19 cents.

So what’s the right number?

The size of the gender wage gap varies according to which factors are taken into account, such as whether one works full- or part-time or for the entire year; the number of hours worked in a given week; level of education; industry; occupation; work experience; and/or career level. Researchers control for what they consider to be women’s career choices in order to base their wage gap calculations on apples-to-apples comparisons—and the wage gap appears to shrink with each factor taken into account.

But should such variables be part of the equation? A woman engineer working 70 hours a week on an oil rig in the Atlantic Ocean would likely earn wages very similar to her identically skilled and employed male coworkers. But there aren’t nearly as many women as men with these credentials. Women are far more likely than men to work at organizations’ lower levels and to enter fields such as education, health care, and social services. They are more likely to work part-time and to interrupt their careers—all of which have been shown to incur substantial financial penalties.

Perhaps columnist Frank Bruni said it best in The New York Times. Bruni’s column movingly chronicled his sister’s constant work/life juggling act. Being a woman, he wrote, “has surely constrained her” professionally, in part because she chose employment that allows her to telecommute.

Why did Bruni’s sister “choose” a job that allows her to telecommute? She did so in order to fulfill the crushing domestic obligations under which most women still labor, and which Bruni himself so eloquently describes.

What Bruni’s sister probably didn’t know was that telecommuting as a businessperson might well have cost her even more. Recent research by economist Claudia Golden demonstrates that employees pay the highest price for working flexibly in occupations, such as business and the law, that assign the greatest value to long hours and rigid work schedules.

Yes, the pay gap narrows when we factor in variables most people still consider women’s choices, like having and caring for children, entering lower-paid professions, and working flexibly.

But are these really choices—for Bruni’s sister or for any other woman?

It’s possible that if we studied only those women who were trained and hired at appropriate levels and paid appropriately alongside equally qualified men, we would find no difference at all between women’s and men’s wages.

But we can’t do that, because women aren’t always treated fairly at work. They are less likely than men to be offered the highest-level, highest-paying jobs for which they are qualified, and less likely to be given raises and promotions from the very beginning of their careers. And once a gap—even a small one—is introduced, it only widens over time.

We don’t have access to the kind of substantive longitudinal data that could help illuminate this issue. Instead, we rely on cross-sectional data that reduces women’s employment patterns to a series of frivolous-sounding “choices”—rather than recognizing them as the only feasible options for many.

Are women paid less than men? Absolutely. But it’s not just a question of salary. It’s a question of what we expect women to do in addition to their jobs, how they are treated on the job, and how we expect them to manage both.

Until this changes, the pay gap isn’t going anywhere.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.