Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
May 12, 2014
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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Here’s another topic that the political parties can’t agree on: the truth behind the gender wage gap. Every year the debate becomes fodder for politicians who disagree on whether one exists at all.

A Senate Budget Committee hearing Tuesday aims to try to get beyond that debate and delve into ways to expand economic opportunities for women and families. That might prove politically tricky – if not impossible — because the issue typically dissolves into a fussy argument about the statistics involved. And, not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans have different views on what needs to be done.

The statistic at the core of the debate is the estimate of how much women earn compared to men in the workplace—the so-called wage gap. You’ve probably heard the number ad nauseam. The Census Bureau says that, on average, a woman working full time takes home 77 cents for every dollar a man working full time takes home.

But this number has its own little controversy.

In one corner there are those, largely Democrats, who believe the 77 percent figure represents a true salary disparity, that women really are paid less than men overall. This is especially galling in an era wherewomen dominate the education system and make up half of the workforce. They argue that the problem is so severe it needs a law to fix it.

In the other corner are those, mostly Republicans, who see the wage gap statistic as an oversimplification or an exaggeration. They argue that there are reasons for the gap that have little to do with discrimination, including personal choices of occupation, education and total hours worked. When those factors are controlled for, they say, a wage gap barely exists.

“It depends on your definitions. Defining the pay gap as the difference between what women working full time and men working full time get, the number is 77 cents on the dollar — that is correct. But I think what people are trying to say is people’s choices are partially to blame for the number,” says Katherine Hill, vice president at the grassroots organization American Association of University Women.

Choices aren’t the only factors that confuse the calculation. Here are some of the statistical complications:

The 77 percent number used by the Census Bureau is the difference between full-time wages of men and women nationally. As should be expected, the gap has gotten smaller over time due to the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and increased roles for women in the workforce. Looking at the chart, which measures Census data from 1979 to 2012, you can see how the gap shrunk from women who earned a low of 62 percent of men’s wages in 1979 to a high of 82 percent around 2010.

Graphic: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

But it’s important to note that the White House’s statistic of choice—77 percent—is very broad. It measures how much women make compared to men for any profession and any number of hours worked over 35 a week.

When women’s wages are compared to men’s on a more apples-to-apples basis, the wage gap shrinks. For example, a 2013 Pew study entitled “On Pay Gap, Millennial Women Near Parity – For Now”compared the salaries of men and women who worked exactly the same number of hours a week and they found the disparity was less. Women earned 84 percent of what men earned.

Other studies have controlled for more factors, including comparing men and women who work in the same line of work. In a recent paper published by Stanford University, economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn found that the biggest factor that determined the differences between men’s and women’s wages were their occupations. By measuring the genders’ salaries within the same fields, the study found the pay gap narrowed to 91 percent.

Census bureau data also supports the argument that women cluster in lines of work that tend to pay less. This is the same view largely held by Republicans and used to argue against the need for new legislation.

The chart below compares women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s within specific occupations in 2009. It displays the occupations more populated by females (the big dots on the chart). As you can see, the two professions women fill the most are education and retail; both sit right at the 77 percent wage ratio line. So it appears that in the fields most popular with women, there is a more pronounced wage gap.

Graphic: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

According to an AAUW study of male and female students and the wages they earned one year out of college, after controlling for a long list of differences, females still made 7 percent less than their male counterparts. This is telling considering studies have shown that younger women typically experience less of a wage gap from younger men.

Graphic: AAUW

Numerous other studies suggest that even when considering all variables—college major, work experience, area of occupation and total hours worked—there still remains an unexplainable 5 to 7 percent wage gap.

So a wage gap does exist. But instead of focusing on how to best deal with the issue, the politics have focused on a red herring squabble over exactly how big it is.

Instead, why doesn’t the debate start with the point most all economists agree on—that women are paid roughly 5 to 7 percent less than men at a time when they are more educated?

Then the important – and interesting—question is what do we do? Should the remedies be legislative, judicial or cultural action?

Most Republicans believe the best way to close the leftover gap isn’t through legislation, which they say already exists through the Equal Pay Act. Romina Boccia, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says Republicans instead prefer public education and leadership programs. She says they are advocating for mentorship that they hope will steer women into more lucrative fields.

Democrats for the most part believe new legislation is necessary to fix the problem because they will create new rules for employers to thwart overt discrimination. They argue that blaming the wage gap on life choices is too simplistic and disregards inherent biases that might have pushed women into their positions, such as the historically female jobs of nursing and teaching.

“A lot of us think that we no longer are subject to these biases about gender, but I think the truth of the matter is we are,” said Hill, of the AAUM. “I think those biases affect employers and they affect women themselves about the types of jobs to pursue, the way we negotiate at all, and it affects how we think about ourselves professionally.”

Since 2009 Democrats have attempted to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act that would make wage information more transparent and require companies to provide proof that wage discrepancies are tied to business qualifications and not gender.

Another bill that has been passed around unsuccessfully is the Fair Pay Act that would require employers to pay men and women the exact same wages if they are doing comparable work. The requirements wouldn’t be limited to people in the exact same role.

For example, if a woman was an emergency service dispatcher, a typically female dominated role, she wouldn’t be paid less than a fire dispatcher, a typically male dominated role, “simply because each of these jobs has been dominated by one sex,’ says Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, a bill co-sponsor.

White it is obviously important to precisely understand just how big the wage gap is, the political argument about the state of it is a smokescreen. It will be instructive to see if tomorrow’s hearing generates some new, clear light or just more smoke.