It's Equal Pay Day -- and the wage gap is better than everyone thinks

  • Women earn less than men, but sexism isn’t always to blame.
  • Many factors – including work experience, career choice, education, and negotiation – play a role in the gender wage gap.

Tuesday is Equal Pay Day. Celebrated every April, the day marks how far into the next calendar year the average American woman would ostensibly have to work in order to make as much as the average American man made in the preceding year.

Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

Every year, pundits point out the problems with the wage gap calculation – which posits that women make roughly 80% of what their male counterparts do. And every year, they are inevitably slapped on the wrist for their alleged sexism and misogyny.

What’s lost in the knee-jerk condemnationof anyone who dares to contradict the groupthink on this issue is the opportunity to carefully explore the data – and the meaning behind it.

But such an exploration requires a suspension of some ideas deeply ingrained in the liberal zeitgeist. If we call anyone who points out that the choices women make play a role in the salaries they earn a victim-blamer, we lose sight of the reality that underlies the data, and we lessen the possibility of fixing it.

PayScale, a company that looks at salary, benefits, and compensation, explored in a recent report the various factors that contribute to pay disparity in the US. The preamble to their report explains how they came to their findings:

“Between January 2016 and February 2018, over 2 million people took PayScale’s online salary survey, providing information about their industry, occupation, location, and other compensable factors. They also reported demographic information, including age and gender. We leveraged this sample to provide insights into the controlled and uncontrolled gender wage gap.”

In comparing all working men to all working women, they found that women earn 78 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts do. The caveat, and it’s a big one, is as follows: the 78 cents figure reflects raw data. When PayScale compared similar men and women working in similar jobs, the gender pay gap shrunk and nearly closed. PayScale found that women earned an average of 98 cents on the dollar.

Christina Hoff Sommers has written thoughtfully on this issue, especially about the ways in which the data is often manipulated when it is presented in its raw state. In a piece for Time, she noted that the gender pay gap figure “does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure or hours worked per week,” and that when those factors are considered, “the wage gap narrows to the point of vanishing.”

Women’s groups know this, Sommers wrote. And in accounting for why women often choose to go into fields that are less lucrative, they posit that “women’s education and career choices are not truly free – they are driven by powerful sexist stereotypes.”

Sommers doesn’t agree with this assessment. But for those who do, the focus should not be on raw, uncontrolled data which spits out an essentially meaningless number, but instead on ways to encourage women to choose majors and career paths that will provide them with greater financial stability.

Another key factor often not considered is negotiation

I spoke by phone with Dr. Beth Fisher-Yoshida, the academic director of the negotiation and conflict resolution program at Columbia.

Yoshida, who is also the academic coordinator at the WIN Summit, a development conference that empowers professional women through negotiation skill-building, talked about the differences between men and women when it comes to negotiation.

“I’ve been doing research on women and negotiation, and one thing that pops up is that especially with younger women who haven’t had experience negotiating, they so often don’t know what is and isn’t negotiable,” she told me. “Typically, what men think they can negotiate for and what women think they can negotiate for differs.”

Training women in negotiation might change that. Pointing to a meaningless data point that misrepresents the wage gap every April will not.

The longer we refuse to engage honestly in the circumstances behind the data the longer we will ensure that wage disparity – of any size – continues to exist.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.