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Equal Pay for Women Can Cut Poverty in Half, Boost Wages Significantly, AND Grow the Economy. Can Any Other Policy Lever Do That?

by Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D.

Every September, the U.S. Census Bureau releases its update on income and poverty in the United States. I—along with many other economists, policy wonks, data geeks, and others—impatiently refresh the website to learn whether there has been any improvement in men’s and women’s earnings, the wage gap, or the poverty rate. In recent years, the significance of each release has been characterized by its insignificance: since 2007, there has not been a statistically significant narrowing of the gender wage gap, and between 2013 and 2014, there was not a statistically significant difference in the poverty rate.  Moreover, adjusted for inflation, the last ten years have seen virtually no increase in women’s earnings, so women are now experiencing what men have experienced for more than three decades—the failure of real wages to grow.

According to the new Census data, women now earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns for full-time, year-round work; actually that’s 78.6 cents compared with a new estimate for the prior year of 78.3 cents, a small gain indeed.  The gap is even wider for most women of color, with Black women earning only 59.8 cents on the white man’s dollar, and Hispanic women only 54.6 cents on the white man’s dollar. By projecting the rate of progress from 1960 forward, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) has found that women will not see equal pay until 2059, one year longer than IWPR’s previous projection. As a clever segment on The Daily Show noted, wage equality for women will take longer to achieve than flying cars or 3D-printed human organs. For an economy that left the Great Recession behind six years ago, this stagnation is beyond frustrating.

Such a wide gap has compound effects over a woman’s lifetime: the typical woman will lose $530,000 over the course of her lifetime due to the wage gap; a college educated woman will lose $800,000. For an individual woman, this is an incredible, undeserved reduction in her lifetime earnings, compromising her ability to save for assets like a house or retirement fund or simply to make ends meet.

For families, the gender wage gap can make the difference between living below or above the poverty line, having funds for recreation and vacations or having none, having access to high-quality child care, schools, and colleges, or only being able to afford poorer quality alternatives or no pre-kindergarten or post-secondary education at all.

Equal Pay_PovertyFor the economy overall, unequal pay is holding back economic growth. IWPR estimates that nearly 60 percent of women would gain pay if they were paid the same as men with similar qualifications and hours of work.  Added across the U.S. economy, these gains amount to 2.9 percent of GDP, a growth rate equivalent to adding another state the size of Virginia. (This type of estimate assumes, of course, that, because of discrimination and other factors, women are currently paid below the level of their productivity; it also assumes no change in women’s education or work hours, which would surely increase if women could expect to earn equal pay.) Each woman, including those who would gain nothing, would earn $6,251 more annually on average, reducing poverty by half for all families with a working woman as well as working women who live alone.

But ensuring that women receive equal pay is not as easy as just paying women more for their work (though that would be a good start!). Businesses and policymakers both have a role to play to achieve the benefits of equal pay well before 2059. You can read my recommendations for how private and public policies can narrow, and eventually eliminate, the gender wage gap over at Fortune. (Hint: we need to address wage inequality by bringing up the bottom of the pay scale, and we also need to close the gender care gap.) It’s time we start taking achieving equal pay seriously.

Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., is an economist, MacArthur Fellow, and president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a nonprofit research institute in Washington, DC.

Top 5 IWPR Findings of 2014

by Jourdin Batchelor

This was an exciting year for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In 2014, we published over 50 reports, fact sheets, and briefing papers. We received more than 1,700 citations in the media and participated in more than 175 speaking engagements. Below are our top 5 findings of 2014 (plus a bonus!). Let us know which one you found most surprising on Twitter or Facebook using #IWPRtop5.

1. Nearly 7 Million Workers in California Lack Paid Sick Days

blog1 (psd)

Earlier this year, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research provided analytic support to help California become the 2nd state in the nation to guarantee paid sick days to  workers who need them.

IWPR’s data analysis found that 44 percent of California’s workers lack access to a single paid sick day. Additionally, access to paid sick days in the state varies widely by race and ethnicity, economic sector, work schedule, occupation, and earnings level. IWPR’s findings were featured in articles published by Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Republic, ThinkProgress, and NPR.

2. Equal pay for working women would cut poverty in half.

Equal Pay_Poverty

IWPR analysis shows that the poverty rate for working women would be cut in half if women were paid the same as comparable men. IWPR’s analysis—prepared for use in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink and produced with the Center for American Progress—also estimates an increase in U.S. GDP by 2.9 percent in 2012 if women received equal pay.

3. Washington, DC, Ranks Highest for Women’s Employment and Earnings; West Virginia Ranks Lowest

IWPR employment and earnings map

This September, IWPR released a short preview of its forthcoming Status of Women in the States report, featuring material from the chapter on women’s employment and earnings with grades and state rankings. The preview was featured in more than half of the states and received more than 150 press citations, with dedicated articles and reprints of the grades in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Time.

The analysis found that eight of the top eleven states that received a grade of B or higher are located in the Northeast. In addition to West Virginia, seven of the fourteen lowest ranked states, which received a grade of D+ or lower, are located in the South: Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Wyoming, Idaho, Oklahoma, Indiana, Utah, and Missouri round out the bottom group.

4. 4.8 Million College Students are Raising Children

single moms

Last month, the Institute’s Student Parent Success Initiative released two fact sheets: one outlining the number of student parents and one that highlights the decline of campus child care even as more parents attend college.

IWPR found that women are 71 percent of all student parents, and single mothers make up 43 percent of the student parent population. Women of color are the most likely students to be raising children while pursuing a postsecondary degree. The research was featured in in-depth pieces by Ylan Q. Mui at The Washington Post and Gillian B. White at The Atlantic, and in popular posts on Quartz, Jezebel, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

5. *Tie* If current trends continue, women will not receive equal pay until 2058 or achieve equal representation in Congress until 2121.

2058  Political Parity Projection

The Institute updated its benchmark fact sheet, The Gender Wage Gap, and calculated that, at the recent rate of progress, the majority of women will not see equal pay during their working lives: a gap will remain until the year 2058. The projection was featured in news stories by The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, The Nation, Forbes, and others.

Another IWPR projection analyzed the current rate of progress in women’s political leadership and found that women in the United States will not have an equal share of seats in Congress until 2121. To address this disparity, IWPR published results from an in-depth study, Building Women’s Political Careers: Strengthening the Pipeline to Higher Office, which details findings from interviews and focus groups with experienced candidates, elected officials, state legislators, and congressional staff members. The projection and the study were featured in The Washington Post, Slate, and TIME.

Bonus: More than half of working women are discouraged or prohibited from discussing pay at work.

pay secrecy facebook

As part of its 2010 Rockefeller survey of women and men following the Great Recession, IWPR found that more than half of working women, including 63 percent of single mothers, are discouraged or prohibited from discussing their pay at work. These data provided the first snapshot of how prevalent pay secrecy is at American workplaces and received renewed attention in 2014 when President Obama signed an executive order in April requiring greater pay transparency among federal contractors. IWPR’s research on pay secrecy was heavily featured in coverage throughout the year, including pieces in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Marie Claire, TIME, Slate, and others, as well as interviews with IWPR experts on NPR’s Morning Edition, MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, and PBS NewsHour.

Your still have a chance to make research count for women in 2014. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to IWPR.

Jourdin Batchelor is the Development Associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

6 Things Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler Missed about the Gender Wage Gap

by Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., Barbara Gault, Ph.D., and Ariane Hegewisch

(This post is in response to Glenn Kessler’s two Pinocchio rating of “President Obama’s persistent ’77-cent’ claim” on April 9, 2014, in the Washington Post.)

Glenn Kessler presents a very one-sided discussion of the wage gap in this April 9th “Fact Checker” post in which he increased President Obama’s rating on his use of wage gap statistics from one Pinocchio (in the 2012 campaign) to two—he should have lowered it from one to zero.  President Obama has correctly used a long standing data series issued every year by the Census Bureau.  The 77 percent wage ratio figure is an accurate measure of the inequality in earnings between U.S. women and men who work full-time, year-round in the labor market.

Here are some other things to keep in mind about that statistic:

1) Kessler claims that President Obama uses the 77 percent wage ratio figure because it shows the biggest wage gap when other data series available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show slightly smaller gaps.  Leaving aside how Kessler could get inside the President’s head and know why he picked a certain series, everyone who writes about this issue should know that this figure based on median annual earnings is the historical headline figure that allows the longest comparison across time.

2) Kessler claims that the other series—weekly or hourly earnings—are more accurate, but there is simply no basis for saying so.  The 77 percent figure actually includes the broadest range of kinds of earnings; for example annual bonus payments are a big part of remuneration in some fields and are included in the 77 percent figure, but are excluded from the weekly or hourly earnings figures.

3) In his first fact check column (posted online at 6:15 am on April 9, 2014), Kessler failed to note that other measures show a much larger gap than the 23 percent figure President Obama used.  If part-time workers were included, a figure that Statistics Canada uses, the wage ratio would be 71 percent and the gap 29 percent.  The United Kingdom has used life-time earnings ratios.  One IWPR study found that across 15 years (ending in 1998, using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics), the typical American woman earned just 38 percent of the typical man.  The Urban Institute, using Social Security earnings data, finds that the typical wife earns about 50 percent of what her husband does across their working lives. Kessler had updated his column to add mention of these other measures, but fails to alter his conclusion that the President used the biggest wage gap.  In fact, the figure the President used falls in the middle of the range and is the one most commonly used for the past 60 years.

4) Kessler emphasizes that women ‘choose’ different and lower-paying college majors than men and seems to think such differences mean that the wage gap measure is not a good measure of economy-wide wage inequality.  ‘Choice’ is, of course, an unverified assumption. There is considerable evidence of barriers to free choice of professions, ranging from lack of unbiased information about job prospects to actual harassment and discrimination in male dominated jobs. It is highly likely that there are many women who are freely choosing to become social workers, and are making well-informed decisions, and the same is likely to be true for men choosing to be engineers. However, there are no hard facts on how many, or indeed, how many would ‘choose’ otherwise in a world of complete information and nondiscriminatory employment.  For example, in a world where half of engineers were women and half of social workers were men, men and women might ‘choose’ very differently than they do now. We do know that young women and men generally express the same range of desires regarding their future careers in terms of such values as making money and having some flexibility and autonomy at work, as well as time to spend with family members.

5) There are legal cases, as well as social science research studies, that show that, just by the mere fact of being a mother, women’s advancement opportunities shrink, and just by being a father, men’s grow. Yet, there is no proof that being a mother makes a woman less productive on the job.  And why should women who may be decades past the phase of active childrearing still be suffering a wage penalty?  While it is true that women typically take more time away from work for child rearing than do men, that decision often makes economic sense when a wife’s wages are lower than her husband’s—equal pay would likely lead to more equitable sharing of child rearing and to women and men working in the labor market about the same amount over their lifetimes.  Research shows subsidizing the cost of child care and providing paid parental leaves of up to six months would help women and men return to work sooner. While Kessler has said the goal of his Fact Checker column is to provide needed context to what political leaders say, this is a part of the needed context he omitted entirely.

6) It is true, as Kessler notes, that when factors such as occupation and parental or marital status are used as control variables in statistical models aiming to explain what ’causes’ the wage gap, the size of that gap will be reduced, and what is left unexplained is generally thought to possibly be the result of discrimination. But it is just as likely that discrimination affects these ‘control’ variables as well as the size of the remaining gap. Unfortunately, Kessler cites only the literature that ignores the possibility of discrimination affecting the control variables.  He cites economist June O’Neill, well-known in the field for her opposition to government intervention to reduce the size of the wage gap. He also cites a study commissioned by the George W. Bush administration and done by a conservative research firm, CONSAD, which Kessler “camouflages” by saying the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank cited it.  Kessler fails to cite peer reviewed literature surveys published in mainstream economics journals, including papers by Francine Blau and former Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank and co-author Joseph G. Altonji. These latter studies estimate that 25-40 percent of the gross wage gap remains unexplained when factors reasonably thought to affect productivity are included as control variables in the models.

The 77 percent figure covers everyone working full-time, year round and does not reflect only women and men doing exactly the same job in the same firm; however, it does reflect women and men working full-time, year round not earning the same. The wage gap figure reflects a number of different factors: discrimination, lower earnings in occupations mainly done by women, and also the fact that women still tend to be the ones to take more time off work when families have children.  Just because the explanation of the gender wage gap is multi-faceted does not make it a lie.

We should note that on occasion, many politicians—including U.S. presidents—journalists, and others present the 77 percent figure as comparing men and women who do the same jobs, and this unfortunate tendency has led to great confusion.  But President Obama was careful in both his recent State of the Union speech and his Equal Pay Day speech to use the figure without that inaccurate qualifier. In his 2008 campaign, his literature often used the phrase ‘unequal pay for an equal day’s work’—that phrase is an accurate way to refer to men and women who both work full-time earning different pay.

Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., is a MacArthur Fellow and the president and founder of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Barbara Gault, Ph.D., is the vice president and executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Ariane Hegewisch is a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Equal Pay for Women and a Higher Minimum Wage Will Move the Economy Forward

by Heidi Hartmann

This post originally appeared on Working Economics, the blog of the Economic Policy Institute.

Heidi Hartmann,Yesterday morning, I had the honor of participating in a Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing, hosted by Leader Nancy Pelosi, in the Cannon House Office Building. Appearing with Lilly Ledbetter—whose story of pay discrimination went all the way to the Supreme Court and ultimately resulted in new legislation in 2009 named after her—and Laura Miu, a psychological counselor, who recently experienced pay discrimination, I was able to share recent research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), which I lead, and by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the think tank that provides the last word on virtually all topics related to American workers. The briefing attracted 20 members of Congress, including Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Robert Andrews, who co-chair the Steering and Policy Committee, and Representatives Donna Edwards and Doris Matsui, who chair and vice-chair, respectively, the Democratic Women’s Working Group. IWPR’s research was originally released in January when it appeared in the latest Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, produced in partnership with the Center for American Progress. EPI’s research was published as an update in December 2013 of an earlier paper last spring that details the impact of an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

The economic progress women have made in the past five decades is enormous. Women have entered many occupations that had been virtually closed to them, now earn more over their lifetimes, and contribute more to family income and to the economy as a whole than ever before.

But there is still a long way to go. Despite the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which makes it easier for women to sue for equal pay—avoiding a similar plight as the bill’s namesake, when she learned she was earning vastly unequal pay near the end of her career—progress toward closing the pay gap has stagnated. Since 2000, the wage ratio has remained around 76.5 percent. If trends of the past five decades are projected forward, it will take almost another five decades—until 2058—for women to reach pay equity.

Our researchers at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research have shown that if women received pay equal to comparable men, the poverty rate of all working women and their families would fall by half, from 8.1 percent to 3.9 percent. The number of women affected is substantial: 42.5 million working women—about 60 percent of all working women—would receive a pay increase, with the average annual pay increase estimated at $6,251 (including $0 amounts for those who got no raise). Moreover, paying women the same as comparable men would have added an additional $448 billion (equivalent to almost 3 percent of GDP) to the economy in 2012, about the equivalent of adding another state the size of Virginia to the nation.

Raising the minimum wage has been estimated to have a similarly dramatic effect on growing the economy and reducing poverty, especially among women. In a recent research paper, David Cooper at EPI calculates that 27.8 million workers—nearly a fifth of working Americans—would be directly and indirectly affected by an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, across the three years 2014 -2016. These pay increases, Cooper estimated, would result in the GDP increasing by 0.3 percent ($22 billion). Moreover, 85,000 new jobs would be created by the additional spending power of low-wage workers.

Cooper shows that women would constitute 55 percent of the workers affected directly and indirectly by the increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour: 15.3 million women would receive a pay increase. The typical minimum wage worker is 35 years of age and provides half her or his family income. Nearly one-fifth of American children have at least one parent whose earnings would be raised by an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Moreover, unpublished EPI data shows that 2.3 million single mothers, or nearly one-third of all working single mothers, would be directly and indirectly affected by the increase in the federal minimum wage.

The members present at the hearing were eager to hear about the importance of eliminating the gender pay gap and increasing the minimum wage, but they were also intensely interested in the issue of pay secrecy. Lilly Ledbetter explained that she had been told when hired that if she so much as discussed her pay with anyone she would be immediately let go. The members wanted to know how many other people might be affected by pay secrecy. A survey conducted by IWPR in 2010 was the first and (so far as we know), the only survey to look into pay secrecy. The survey found that, like Ledbetter, many workers do not know what their colleagues are being paid and are unlikely to be able to find out. More than 60 percent (62 percent of women, 60 percent of men) of private-sector workers responded that discussing pay at work is either strongly discouraged or prohibited.  By contrast, only 18 percent of female public-sector workers and 11 percent of male public-sector workers reported being discouraged from discussing pay rates or fearing penalties for doing so, and the gender wage gap is much smaller in the public-sector than in the private-sector.

Public policies can combat both unequal pay and low minimum wages. More than half of the states have made pay adjustments in their civil service systems that raise the pay of female-dominated jobs. Firms that contract with local and state governments and the federal government to provide goods and services can be required to meet standards, such as non-retaliation toward workers who share pay information or a higher minimum wage (as President Obama said in the State of the Union speech that he would require of federal contractors), or report their gender wage ratios within job categories, as has been done in New Mexico for state contractors.

The stall in the economic progress of women in the past decade, coupled with the large number of women and families who would benefit from increases in women’s earnings resulting from stronger equal pay remedies and a higher federal minimum wage, make the case that implementing new laws and public policies is urgent. Paying women equally and raising the minimum wage would significantly reduce poverty and boost the growth of the U.S. economy.

Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., is the president and founder of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Shining a Light on the Wage Gap

HHFifty years after the Equal Pay Act, employment discrimination persists but is harder to see.

By Dr. Heidi Hartmann

When the Equal Pay Act (EPA) was passed 50 years ago, discrimination was, in many ways, openly accepted in the workplace and women were expected to earn less than men in the same jobs. The EPA signed by President John F. Kennedy on June 10, 1963, helped to reduce this type of blatant employment discrimination, but it is still present and the wage gap persists.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) was founded 25 years ago, at the end of the 1980s, the decade which saw the most sustained narrowing of the gender wage gap since passage of the EPA. Between 1981 and 1990, the gender wage gap closed by more than ten percentage points. In the most recent decade, progress has stalled and the gap narrowed by no more than one percentage point.

There is no single cause for the pay gap. Jobs dominated by women pay less than jobs dominated by men. Over their lifetimes, women still take off more time from paid work for family care than men. Women also still face subtle—and not so subtle—discrimination when they do the similar work to men. Direct discrimination is still estimated to account for between one quarter and 40 percent of the wage gap, according to several reviews of social science research.

Employers can no longer advertise jobs at different rates for men and women. But paying women less for similar performance, giving women less access to career-enhancing opportunities, and making it harder for women to get promoted are practices that continue to hinder progress towards equal pay.

Tackling those types of employment discrimination is surprisingly difficult because employees may still be fired simply for discussing their earnings with a colleague or coworker. In an age when information sharing has become widespread and hearing about a major life event over social networking is not uncommon, exchanging pay information remains frowned upon by many employers. Pay secrecy allows disparities, discrimination, and unequal pay to hide under the rug.

President Kennedy hands out pens at the White House signing of the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963.  Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

President John F. Kennedy hands out pens at the White House signing of the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

According to an IWPR/Rockefeller survey, half of all workers (51 percent of women and 47 percent of men) report that the discussion of wage and salary information is either discouraged or prohibited and/or could lead to punishment. The Equal Pay Act does not protect workers against retaliation for sharing salary information with their co-workers. In the public sector, where pay information is publicly available, a smaller pay gap exists compared to the private sector.

The 2009 Lily Ledbetter Act provides that every paycheck that pays a woman less than a male colleague for equal or similar work can be challenged in court, but the act did not address pay secrecy. Ledbetter worked for a company that prohibited the discussion of one’s salary. After 18 years on the job, Ledbetter sued when, in an anonymous note from a coworker, she received evidence that she was being paid unfairly. The Paycheck Fairness Act was introduced in the last Congress, but failed to pass to a vote in the Senate. This bill would have protected workers against retaliation for sharing pay information.

Women don’t have the time to wait to earn the same as men because their families need the money now. According to the most recent estimate from IWPR, however, the wage gap is not expected to close until 2057. Many women working today will never see equal pay, harming their long-term earnings and leaving them with lower retirement income.

In an age where women in the United States are almost half the workforce, are more likely to gain higher levels of education than men, and increasingly are the main or co-breadwinner in families, we cannot wait for another 44 years for the gender wage gap to be finally relegated to the history books.

Dr. Heidi Hartmann is President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 

Obama is Right About His Wage Gap Statistics

By Heidi Hartmann

Despite recent criticism from “The Fact Checker” blog on The Washington Post, there is nothing at all misleading or biased about President Obama’s use of the 77 percent figure as a measure of wage inequality between women and men in the United States. Women’s median earnings for year round, full-time work in 2010 of $36,931 amounted to 77.4 percent of what men’s median earnings for year-round, full-time work were in the same year ($47,715). These numbers come from the Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) and include the non-institutionalized civilian population who are either self-employed or work for wages or salary and are 15 years of age or older. These data are reported on an annual basis each year in August or September by the Census Bureau based on a household survey they conduct. This particular earnings series—annual median earnings for full-time, year-round workers—has the longest history, most likely explaining why it is the most frequently cited data series. It is the series on which NOW’s famous pin saying simply 59¢ was based, as that represented the wage ratio back in the late 1960s when NOW was founded. Because this data series has the longest history, its wage ratio serves as a well-known index to measure trends over time.

A Variety of Wage Gap Numbers

There are a range of numbers given for the wage ratio or gender wage gap (generally the gap is 100 percent minus the ratio, so with a ratio of 77 percent the gap is 23 percent), stemming from different data sets or different ways of analyzing the data. Each can be correct, depending on what the analyst wants to study. Each data set and methodology yields estimated pay gaps. Each is based on a survey, generally of a sample of all households, though wage data can also be gathered from samples of employers or of administrative records such as unemployment insurance or Social Security earnings records. Generally no data set is complete; all are subject to both sampling and non-sampling errors. Furthermore, different researchers may choose to extract different elements of data. For example, some researchers may restrict the age range of workers to prime age adults, those aged 25 to 54, in order to compare those for whom education is generally complete but who have not yet reached retirement age. To illustrate the burden of inequality faced by women of color, some researchers might compare the earnings of minority women to white men; others restrict the comparison of the earnings of minority women to those of minority men. Both ways can be correct depending on what one wants to illustrate.

In the United States, researchers generally restrict the comparisons to those who work full-time, whether on a weekly basis or an annual basis, but in other countries, for example Canada, total earnings of all workers (both those who work full time year-round and those who work part time or part year) might be compared in a gender wage ratio. If we do that in the United States we get a wage ratio of 72.4 percent and a larger gap of 27.6 percent. Although the Post‘s fact checker claimed that President Obama picked the wage ratio that made gender inequality look the worst, he clearly did not—he could have picked this one.

Another even smaller wage ratio (and larger wage gap) was generated by IWPR in our report entitled Still a Man’s Labor Market (February 2004), where based on a different data set, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, on a survey of households conducted by the University of Michigan, we calculated that across 15 years, prime age women earned just 38 percent of what prime age men earned, for a staggering gender gap of 62 percent. This ratio is just as valid and just as accurate as others. It is telling us that across a 15-year period the typical woman in the United States earns only 38 percent of what the typical man earns. As the study points out, the reason women earn so much less across 15 years is that they spend more time out of the labor market; women typically work both fewer years and fewer hours per year than do men. No one would take this measure as a measure of discrimination by employers, but as a measure of women’s economic independence or lack of it or of what women contribute to family income across 15 years, this is an excellent measure. This type of life-time measure was used by the United Kingdom under the Labor government.

A larger wage ratio and smaller wage gap is generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the Current Population Survey by looking at median weekly earnings for full-time workers each week of the calendar year and then combining those medians to get an annual median weekly earnings figure. Currently this ratio is a bit higher than the annual ratio released by the Census Bureau, standing at 82.2 percent for 2011. As an IWPR fact sheet shows, in some years, these two ratios are virtually identical, yet the Post fact checker made a big deal of how President Obama chose the lower ratio. Not so, President Obama just chose the most commonly used wage ratio. And, contrary to the fact checker’s claim, there is nothing superior about the weekly measure. It is not, for example, more inclusive: on the one hand it includes some workers who work full-time but not all year, but on the other hand it excludes the self-employed. It also underestimates earnings from annual bonuses—a substantial part of income in some high paying professional jobs and a source of income where a number of law cases show that women lose out.

In many countries an hourly wage ratio is used to avoid the measurement problem of full-time male workers working slightly more time than full-time female workers. Since, in the United States, some workers are paid on an hourly basis and others on a weekly basis, using either measure requires calculating a consistent wage measure, and the BLS does not routinely generate an hourly wage rate for all workers.

Response to Criticisms of the Wage Gap Measure

The most frequent criticism I hear of the wage gap is that it is comparing apples and oranges—it’s not comparing women and men in the same jobs or women and men who have the same education or same college major or whatever, and therefore the whole gap cannot be considered the result of pay discrimination. Interestingly, I don’t know of any individual or group who claims the whole pay gap is due to discrimination, so I don’t know why so much hot air is spent saying that it isn’t all due to discrimination. Many economists, sociologists, and other researchers have spent years trying to identify how much of the gap can be explained by factors that might reasonably affect wages, such as work experience, education, and so on. Generally in these analyses what cannot be explained by reasonable factors is considered possibly or likely the result of discrimination. Several comprehensive literature reviews that have been published in peer reviewed scholarly journals conclude that about 25 to 40 percent of the wage gap remains unexplained. But most of these studies do not assess whether some of the differences observed between women and men that might help explain the gender wage gap, like college major, are themselves the result of discrimination or of limited choice sets faced by women and men. In a world where most social workers are women and most engineers are men, few women and men may consider training for occupations that are nontraditional for their gender.

Much is also made of women’s choice to bear children and to spend some time out of the labor market as a result. But is that just a woman’s choice, or is it also a societal necessity? Years after that labor market absence should women still be suffering a wage penalty for that societal necessity? Or should society try to equalize the playing field by providing paid parental leave, encouraging fathers to share equally in child rearing, and providing subsidized, high quality child care to facilitate both parents’ return to the labor market?

The Case for Government Action

As Rachel Maddow recently pointed out on her news show, the existence of the wage gap should not be in dispute—the gap is there as measured in all the data sets released by federal government agencies. What is being argued about is whether that gap is meaningful; whether, if we can explain it by several reasonable factors, we don’t have to worry about it; whether we can pretend it isn’t really there. Conservatives, as she pointed out, tend to argue there is no gap, at least no gap that can be attributed to employer discrimination and therefore no gap that government policy needs to address. Liberals, in contrast, tend to argue there still is employer discrimination (with several horrendous cases of it coming to light each year as women bring legal actions against a wide variety of employers, despite the difficulty of doing so), and that, furthermore, a case can also be made for minimizing the negative economic effects of child bearing, particularly on women.

If we generally believe that women and men are equally talented and work equally hard on the job, that they tend to value the same things about work (such as making money and having some flexibility on the job), then they ought to be able to find opportunities in the labor market that pay them about the same. Yet while the evidence suggests that women and men generally do have equal ability and work equally hard and have equal value preferences, the evidence also suggests that they do not find labor market opportunities that tend to pay them about the same. In my view, this makes the case for government intervention.

The gender wage gap is a good measure of the lack of equal earnings between women and men in the labor market. Many women and men believe the gap should be smaller, that such a large gap as we have in the United States is unfair and reflects an unfair tendency for women to get paid less for what they do than men get paid for what they do. Moreover, such unequal pay inevitably leads to the misallocation of our human resources and a general reduction in U.S. productivity. Not only do women and their families suffer from unequal pay, but our society as a whole suffers as well, a circumstance that furthers the case for government intervention.

Heidi Hartmann is the President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The Wage Gap: Myths vs. Realities

By Heidi Hartmann

We owe a debt of gratitude to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for pointing out the differing perceptions people have about the gender wage gap. In April, she invited me on her show to set the facts straight on the wage gap and I hope that I helped her to do that

By now, most Americans are likely familiar with the 77 percent figure, meaning that, at the median, women’s wages equal only 77 percent of men’s wages both for full-time, year-round work (in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available). This figure, provided annually by the U.S. Census Bureau, has come under criticism from conservative economists and others for a variety of reasons for the past several decades—so much so, that this simple and accurate figure is now viewed by many media outlets as suspect. One New York City newspaper even refused to allow an op-ed writer to include a number such as this provided by IWPR based upon government data.

On an April 30 broadcast of  the Sunday morning television show, Meet the Press, Ms. Maddow pointed out that another guest on the show, conservative-leaning CNN commentator Alex Castellanos, seemed to deny that men’s and women’s wages are unequal. After first countering that wages were equal, Mr. Castellanos said they were unequal but that was due to good reasons such as women working in fields like science or math, or women taking time off to have children, and so on. Mr. Castellanos was echoing justifications provided by conservative economists over the years to ignore the size of the wage gap by imagining that it is really much smaller than the data show, or that it may reflect women’s preferences—therefore, no government action to end discrimination is necessary.

While often those on opposite sides of an issue agree on facts but disagree on solutions, Ms. Maddow’s point is that, in terms of the wage gap, there exists a major difference in belief about the facts. In such circumstances, it is impossible to come to a compromise and agree upon a solution. Just as conservatives have spent decades challenging the role of government in regulating pollution, banks, or big business, they have spent decades challenging the popular wage gap number, and for a similar reason—to avoid policy changes. Let’s review what conservative economists have been saying.

Some economists challenge the 77 percent figure by pointing out it does not compare women’s and men’s earnings in the same jobs: in other words, the figure implicitly compares truck drivers, who are mostly male, with secretaries, who are mostly female, for example. Yes, the figure does compare women and men across the whole economy, but do we believe women should receive lower pay because they are any less talented, competent, or hard working than men? Given their equal competency, shouldn’t both women and men be able to find jobs in the economy that pay them what they’re worth?

When citing the wage gap, it may be more accurate to say, as President Obama often does, that women earn only 77 percent of what men earn for an equal day’s work (rather than for equal work).

A second set of reasons economists give for challenging the 77 percent figure is that the women and men being compared are not identical. More women than men have likely taken at least a year off from work in the past to take care of children, even if they are working full-time, year-round now. Also, more working women than working men are single parents. More married working fathers than married working mothers have stay-at-home spouses, allowing them to focus on full-time paid work.

Critics who cite these issues suggest it would be more accurate to compare single workers without children in restricted age ranges, where time spent working and work life careers are presumably more similar. But does it make sense to consider only subsets of workers? Shouldn’t women and men expect equal earnings when they provide equal effort and skill on the job whatever their age, marital, or parental status?

Yet another set of economists’ favorite reasons revolves around women’s choices. Perhaps women chose more family-friendly jobs that pay less, for example, because they provide more flexibility in exchange for the lower wages. Interestingly, data about the nature of jobs held by women and men cannot confirm this hypothesis. According to a recent survey IWPR conducted, single mothers have the least flexible jobs and college-educated white men the most flexible jobs.

Ms. Maddow was correct to point out that Mr. Castellanos is denying a reality that many women experience every day, lower pay than they deserve for the work they do. Many economists have been denying this reality for a long time. Let’s hope women’s voices and women’s votes in this election season make it clear that women’s lower wages must be addressed by stronger public policies.

Dr. Heidi Hartmann is the President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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