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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.

San Francisco Paid Sick Days Law Is a Proven Success

This is a guest post by Vicki Shabo, Director of Work and Family Programs with the National Partnership for Women and Families. It was originally published on the blog for the National Partnership of Women and Families.

A new study released today shows that San Francisco’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance (PSLO)—the first citywide paid sick days standard in the country—has been proven a success. The report, San Francisco’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance: Outcomes for Employers and Employees, released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), includes the results of a survey of nearly 1,200 workers and more than 700 employers in San Francisco. The findings are overwhelmingly positive for workers, businesses and the public—adding further evidence that policies that help working families meet their responsibilities at work and at home are good for everyone.

Sixty-one percent of San Francisco voters approved the city’s paid sick days law in 2006 despite the business lobby’s fierce campaign against it. Under the law, workers in smaller businesses can earn up to five paid sick days per year while workers in larger businesses can earn up to nine. Workers can use the sick time to recover from their own illness, care for a sick family member, or seek routine medical care.

This new study shows what researchers, advocates and the San Francisco public knew to be true: San Francisco’s PSLO has had a tremendous impact on workers’ lives with little to no impact on the city’s businesses. Two-thirds of the employers surveyed now support the PSLO. They overwhelmingly report that their profits haven’t declined as a result of the law and two-thirds report no difficulties with implementation.

The study results suggest that part of the reason the impact on business has been minimal is that workers only take sick days when they need them. Even though the law allows workers to take between five and nine paid sick days annually, San Francisco workers used a median of just three days per year to recover from an illness or care for a sick family member. And one-quarter of workers reported that they didn’t take a single sick day. Commonly used arguments about employee abuse, just like concerns about hindering businesses, simply aren’t reflected in the real-life data coming out of San Francisco. It’s no wonder that the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, one of the chief opponents of the law prior to its passage, now concedes that there has not been an adverse impact on business closures or employee misuse.

This new data proves that access to paid sick days really does make a difference for working families. More than half of the workers surveyed said they have benefitted from the law. And the law has given workers who need paid sick days the most—including parents and workers with chronic health conditions—the time they need to care for their health and the health of their children. Every day we hear the stories of parents who are forced to choose between their children’s health and the financial well-being of their family; lower-wage workers who have to put off visits to the doctor and sacrifice their health to avoid losing their jobs; and workers with conditions like asthma and diabetes that require ongoing care but who are forced to put their long-term health in danger because they have no sick time. This study shows the power of a simple common-sense policy in improving the lives of these workers and their families.

One sobering note from the study is that not all workers have been able to enjoy the PSLO’s protections. Between one-fifth and one-third of the city’s employers are not complying with the law, either by failing to provide time off or by asking for more documentation than the law requires. The survey results are a call for greater employer education, outreach, and enforcement to maximize compliance and workers’ access to the protections the law provides.

As a whole, this new report adds to the growing evidence that paid sick days policies benefit working families, employers and our communities. Currently, 40 percent of private-sector workers in the United States don’t have access to paid sick days. And millions more cannot use the time they have to care for a sick child or family member. Washington, DC, and Milwaukee, WI, have already followed San Francisco’s lead by passing paid sick days laws, and states like Connecticut are seriously considering legislation that would guarantee workers the right to earn paid sick days. There are no more excuses for lawmakers and employers not to do the right thing for working families. The scare tactics used by opponents have been shown to be baseless. It’s time for lawmakers to reject them and enact the common-sense policies that are proven to work for everyone.

Vicki Shabo is the Director of the Work and Family Programs with the National Partnership for Women and Families based in Washington, DC.

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