Approaching the mid-term elections, Democrats have returned to the issue of gender discrimination in the workplace. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blasted Republicans saying, “If Senate Republicans are ideologically opposed to ensuring equal pay for equal work, they are free to vote against passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.” President Obama himself has been traveling the country touting “equal pay for equal work” and citing from the Bureau of Labor Relations’ (BLR) annual report that a woman “still makes 77 cents for each dollar a man earns.” But contrary to what the President wants us to believe, that is very different from saying “women earn 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men.” In fact, very little — if any — evidence exists that discrimination is the cause of the wage disparity between full-time men and women employees.
First, the metric ignores part-timers workers, among whom women make 3 percent more than men. Secondly, “full-time” status is achieved by working a minimum of 35 hours a week, but it does not differentiate beyond that mark. As Hanna Rosin, a writer for the liberal online publication Slate, wrote, “We could be comparing men working 40 hours to women working 35.” The same report the President so frequently cites also states that men were almost twice as likely to work more than 40 hours a week while women were almost twice as likely to work only 35 to 39. The fact is that not all full-time employees are the same and when accounting for their hourly differences, the wage gap closes from 23 percent (77¢) to 13 percent (87¢).
But, this is still not an accurate measure of men and women doing equal work. Men and women gravitate to different industries as a result of their own free choices. Women, especially mothers, tend to seek jobs that offer greater flexibility in work hours and commuting; they are thus more likely to hold clerical jobs or to work in the service industry. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to perform manual labor such as construction and mining. These blue-collar industries tend to be higher paying, for reasons other than quality of work. First, 34 percent of labor within blue-collar industries is unionized and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unionized wages are on average $4.12 per hour higher than those of their nonunionized counterpart. Secondly, blue-collar work (such as iron working or logging) often presents a considerable risk factor and as a result average pay is higher to compensate for that risk. Given that 92 percent of work-related deaths in 2012 were men, it appears that men are either significantly more careless or far more likely to work in a dangerous industry. The latter would appear the more probable option especially if you have ever seen an episode of History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers. Over seven seasons, only two of its 24 drivers have been women — one of which left after just one season. Similar trends are seen in industries in which compensation is risky (such as finance or law). Furthermore, these factors account for at least four percent of the remaining wage disparity, narrowing the gap to nine percent (91¢).
Education is perhaps the most significant influence on one’s career choices and therefore the wage he or she collects. Fortunately, level of education no longer contributes to the gender income gap. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women were the recipients of almost 60 percent of both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in 2012. However, field of study is equally important, and according to the U.S Department of Education, men earn more degrees in fields with the highest earning potential. In 2010, men received over 83 percent of engineering degrees — a field that the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts to grow 11 percent and yield an average salary of $132,000 by 2018 — yet, it did not even rank amongst women’s top ten majors. Similar trends were seen amongst computer science majors — a field projected to grow by 24 percent in the same time frame. Women, on the other hand, obtain 85 percent of Education degrees, 77 percent of Psychology degrees and 68 percent of English degrees, which, President Obama politely told students at the University of Michigan last week, feed into professions that “are passions, but not going to be an investment banker salary situations.”
Next, we adjust for work experience, in which women have also made significant strides. Beginning in the 1980s, the women labor force participation rate dramatically increased. This increase improved women work experience and eliminated roughly 35 percent of the preexisting gender gap by 1994. Thus, in a study that tracked MBA graduates from the University of Chicago from 1990 to 2006, economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn found almost no differential in either work experience or salary between men and women right out of school. But, a decade later, the gap widened by 40 percent and “almost all of that huge difference can be fully explained by the greater number of career interruptions and lower weekly hours experienced by the women.” Another study entitled, The Gender Pay Gap, calculated those reduced hours and more common interruptions amount to on average “a 3.5 year difference in full-time experience between men and women.” Furthermore, after taking all of these factors into account, economists June and Dave O’Neill concluded that, “labor market discrimination is unlikely to account for more than five percent, but may not be present at all.”
Of course, there are times when gender discrimination is responsible for disparities in compensation, and they should be addressed accordingly. After all, gender based discrimination has been illegal since President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. So, if the President is sincere in his efforts to address this issue, I suggest he start with his own administration. Neither the men nor the women in the White House are unionized, yet a recent study showed that female White House staffers make on average 88¢ for every dollar a male staffer earns. When Jay Carney, the White House Press Secretary, was asked about this he said, “well that’s better than others are doing,” as if to say “well we discriminate in moderation.” Then, he ought to address the pay gaps that, according to the Secretary of the Senate reports, exist in over two-thirds of Senate Democrats’ offices. Senator Mark Warner (D., Va.) pays his female staffers $20,861 (28 percent) below the average male salary while Alaska’s Senator Mark Begich (D.) pays his female staffers on average $23,504 (29 percent) less. In fact, the last time Senate Democrats pushed the Paycheck Fairness Act in 2013, three of its five main sponsors would have been found guilty of discrimination by their own bill. Senator Patty Murray (D., Wash.) paid her female staffers about $21,000 (34 percent) less per year than her male staffers. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D., Calif.) female staffers were paid $21,000 (41 percent) less while Senator Barbara Boxer’s (D., Calif.) female staffers made about $5,000 (7 percent) less.
So, I suppose Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) did not realize she was talking about her own colleagues when she said, “It is outrageous that in 2014 some in Congress apparently still think that women don’t deserve to earn the same amount as a man for doing the same job.” Once the Democrats concede their faulty logic and ameliorate any gender discrimination practices in their own workplaces, we could finally have an honest and fact-based discussion on how real discrimination can be avoided and the gender pay gap can be closed further.