77 Cents

Last week I linked to a sexist exchange on Meet the Press where Alex Castellanos all but pinched Rachel Maddow’s cheek and told her she’s cute when she’s angry. (He didn’t quite go that far, but it would have been a logical next step.)

Lots of people (including Rachel herself Monday evening) came back to that argument (probably making it one of the most widely viewed MTP segments in some while), asking the proper now-that-the-dust-has-settled question: Forget how outrageous Castellanos’ manner was or how well Maddow responded – who was right?

Context. The subject was the political gender gap, and Rachel was arguing that it is based on policy rather than image. Romney can’t win over women voters just by giving his wife a more prominent role in the campaign or sending other female surrogates out to campaign for him, because his policies give women good reasons not to like him.

To support that point, she brought up gender inequality in the workplace: Women make less than men. President Obama pushed and signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, making it easier for women to sue for workplace discrimination. Romney won’t say whether he would have signed that bill or not. (But he has promised not to try to repeal it.) So in terms of substantive policy, what is Romney’s plan for ending gender discrimination in the workplace?

She didn’t get that far. As soon as she said “Women in this economy still make 77 cents on the dollar for what men make” Castellanos interrupted, saying “there are reasons” why women make less than men. When asked specifically, “Do women make less than men for the same work?” he answered “No.”

So who’s right? I find this kind of discussion hard to follow on TV, where it’s so easy for each side to talk past the other, shifting the argument to a slightly different issue rather than directly refuting or admitting the point just made by the other side. But now that I’m sitting at my computer, with time on my side and Google and Wikipedia strapped onto my utility belt, who’s right?

First observation: Who’s right about what?

The argument has one major issue in the background: Do women face workplace discrimination? Several similar-but-not-identical factual questions relate to that issue:

  • On average, do working women make less money that working men? This one is easy, and the answer is yes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that men working fulltime in 2011 averaged $832 a week, while women working fulltime made $684 – 82 cents on the dollar. (The 77 cents number came from 2010 and was based on annual earnings rather than weekly. I’m not completely sure why that makes a difference.) In general, things have been slowly equalizing; the weekly-earnings number was 62 cents in 1979.
  • Do women make less money than men for the same quantity and quality of the same work? This is a tougher question, because how do you define “same quantity and quality”? For any two workers, you can almost always find some difference in their qualifications or duties or output. The question is whether we’re talking about legitimate distinctions or ones dreamed up after-the-fact to justify discrimination. It seems undeniable that some women make less for the same quantity and quality of the same work – Lilly Ledbetter, for example. If this never happened, Romney could cheerfully support the Fair Pay Act knowing that it makes no actual difference.
  • How much of the pay gap between men and women is due to discrimination? This has come to be the center of the debate, and it’s what I wanted to focus on, but I can’t because the research either wasn’t as clear or as easy to find as I wanted. So I offer an IOU: I’ll get back to it next week after I’ve had more time to sift through the numbers.

Here’s what I’m looking for: The insidious thing about this argument is that pay-gap-due-to-discrimination is not something you can measure directly. All you can do is start with the 82 cents on the dollar and see how much of that deficit you can attribute to some legitimate cause. After you allow for everything reasonable you can think of, you can say with some confidence that the rest of the pay gap is unreasonable.

So what I’d like to find is a study that chips away: X cents is due to men and women being in different professions. Y cents is due to women entering high-paying professions recently and so still being relatively younger than their male colleagues. Z cents comes from having less seniority because they interrupted their careers to have children. And so on, leading to D cents that is inexplicable unless employers discriminate.

I can find pieces of that, but I’ll hold them for next week in hopes of painting a clearer picture.

In the remainder of this post, I’d like to knock off some side-issues.

The just-so story. On Meet the Press, Castellanos made this argument: If the 77 cents thing were true, then

every greedy businessman in America would hire only women, save 25% and be hugely profitable.

Let me turn that logic back on itself: If Castellanos’ argument were true, then there would never have been any wage discrimination in America against any group ever.

All through the 1930s, any greedy owner of a major league baseball team could have hired can’t-miss stars like Satchell Paige or Josh Gibson for peanuts. (Gibson, the “black Babe Ruth” died at 35, three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Paige arrived in the majors in 1948, well past his prime. At age 47, he was still good enough to pitch in the 1953 All-Star game.)

No owners did. Why? You’d have to ask them. But discrimination does happen. It can’t be dismissed with a just-so story about capitalism.

Are statistics the whole story? If gender discrimination happens at all, it’s wrong and should be illegal, independent of whether it happens often enough to affect the averages. Since when do we decide moral issues by statistics? (Compare: Pro-life activists are not mollified by the fact that partial-birth abortions are an insignificant percentage of all abortions.)

What’s reasonable? Kevin Drum was all over this point: A lot of what is considered a “reasonable” explanation of the pay gap is just discrimination by a different name.

When all’s said and done, women are punished financially in three different ways: because “women’s jobs” have historically paid less than jobs dominated by men; because women are expected to take time off when they have children, which reduces their seniority; and because even when they’re in the same job with the same amount of experience, they get paid less than men. All of these things are part of the pay gap. Whether you call all three of them “discrimination” is more a matter of taste than anything else.

What’s a problem? As Kevin pointed out, many women interrupt their careers for children. For the moment, leave aside the question of whether men’s careers should be equally disrupted. I just want to point out that there was a time in American history when large numbers of men had their careers disrupted: World War II.

When they came back from the war, our country decided that those interrupted careers were a problem, and something should be done about it. Hence, the G.I. Bill of Rights, which paid for millions of returning servicemen to go to college or get some other kind of training.

When women come back to the workforce after raising children, though, they’re on their own. That’s a kind of discrimination right there.

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  • Tom  On May 7, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Alex C used a statistic – something like single females between (as I recall) 46 and 65 make as much or more than men. (1) Is that correct? Or even possibly in the ballpark? If No to either, for goodness’ sake, let’s rebut that fake factoid. (2) If it is correct, the Why-it-is-so questions are sensible. If it is not correct, let’s not parse the thing much, just go straight to Drum’s “all’s said and done”.

    • weeklysift  On May 7, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Yeah, that was a head-scratcher, and I haven’t figured out yet what he was talking about. One of the things I’m reading is a GAO study of women in management. They corrected for age and marital status and still came up with a pay gap favoring men. Not exactly the same thing, but close enough that I’d expect to see the same effect if it were real.

    • weeklysift  On May 8, 2012 at 7:44 am

      OK, found reference to this in Time, I think. It’s childless, unmarried, young (not sure how young) women living in cities make 8% more than childless, unmarried, young men living in the same cities. Now I need to find the original and figure out why they sliced-and-diced that way and if it’s legit.

      The study’s author tells Time it’s because women are getting more college degrees than men now. But I also wonder if high-earning men are getting married young and high-earning women aren’t. Otherwise, it’s kind of hard to see why marriage would make a difference in the absence of children.


  • macduff40  On May 7, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    The economist mag weighs in on this one.
    America’s gender wage gap
    Apr 17th 2012, 17:52 by The Economist online

    FULL-TIME working women in America earned only 82.2% of men’s median weekly earnings last year, according to a new report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a think-tank in Washington, DC. Women earned less than men in almost all occupations. Only in the fields of “stock clerks and order fillers” and “bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks” did women make slightly more than their male counterparts. The gender wage gap (women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s) was most pronounced amongst CEOs and financial managers. Female chief executives earned only 69% as much as male bosses, resulting in $658 less in median weekly earnings.

  • Justin S  On May 7, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    One of the most common “better” arguments I’ve seen that can unfortunately sometimes enrage people is that “women don’t pursue raises as well, as a demographic.” It’s plausible to think that cultural leanings promote differences in the way men and women pursue getting raises & the resulting gap would look just like discrimination, even if there technically wasn’t any. Unfortunately I’ve never seen a study that convincingly tried to demonstrate this. It wouldn’t be too hard to set up… all you’d have to do was make a game/simulation where players would be able to negotiate their own pay with other “hiring” players. User gender could be tracked but not revealed between players, refine a bit further and you’ve got a functional non-contextual model to show if it’s one way or the other…


  • By The Door to Recovery « The Weekly Sift on May 7, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    […] 77 Cents. Who’s right about how much money women make and why? […]

  • […] Last week I verified that at the grossest level, women still make less. In 2011, women working full time made 82 cents for every dollar made by men working full time. (The often-quoted 77 cents figure is a year older and figured slightly differently, which tells you something about the sensitivity of the calculations. In what follows I’ve been careful not to mix data from different sources. Everything comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics table that leads to the 82-cent estimate.) […]

  • […] Last week I verified that at the grossest level, women still make less. In 2011, women working full time made 82 cents for every dollar made by men working full time…. […]

  • By Roberts at the Bat | The Weekly Sift on April 14, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    […] tried to understand the statistics myself a couple years ago, and my overall conclusion was that you can shrink the gap by normalizing for […]

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