Brittney Haywood and Nina Brooks join demonstrators at a rally at Daley Center Plaza to celebrate National Equal Pay Day on April 17. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times
Updated: June 7, 2012 8:20AM
Politics, it has been said, is the skilled use of blunt objects. Perhaps predictably, given the salience of women’s issues this election season, Rachel Maddow recently launched one of the most nuance-resistant blunt objects —the gender gap — into the election fray. She should have examined her weapon more carefully.
Maddow stated on April 29 on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” that since women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn, the Democrats should appeal to women voters by citing this as a discrimination issue.
Alex Castellano, the Republican strategist who was also on the panel, sought to explain that there are non-discriminatory reasons for women’s lesser earnings. But he confused the matter by saying there was no wage gap.
The Twitterverse went crazy. CNN sent a reporter to determine whether there actually is a gender gap in pay. Maddow followed up on her own MSNBC show with a blistering segment on the alleged GOP failure to acknowledge women’s wage disadvantage.
Maddow is correct by the bluntest measures — or close enough. The Bureau of Labor Statistics annually computes the median income earned by a representative sample of the roughly 49 million women working full time, year-round, and compares it to the median income earned by a representative sample of roughly 64 million men working full time, year-round. The difference is labeled the gender gap.
Maddow’s statement that women earn 77 cents for each dollar earned by men was true last year. The latest figures, though, show women earning 81 cents for each dollar.
For many people, whether the discrepancy is 23 or 19 cents, it is slam-dunk evidence of continuing and pervasive discrimination against women — certainly Maddow’s working assumption.
But as a self-proclaimed member of the reality-based community, she showed surprisingly little interest in determining whether her assumption was true.
She brandished charts showing that women earn less than men in the most common occupations.
“For the same work,” she said, “dudes get paid more.”
But given the crudeness of government statistics, she can’t know this. For one thing, the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines full time as 35 hours a week or more.
And guess what? On average, men work more hours than women. In addition, the occupational categories used are so broad that they make comparisons all but meaningless.
Maddow pointed out that among managers, for example, men earn more than women.
But the raw numbers hide the fact that there are many kinds of managers. Some work for lower-paying nonprofits and the government, as it happens, and they are more likely to be women.
Others preside over human resource departments or finance or strategy offices. The former category tends to be less competitive and lower-paying — and to attract women — than the latter, which is more likely to be filled by men.
Hours and occupational differences aren’t the only factors left out of the “77 cents” meme. On average, women have shorter work histories.
If they are mothers, they have more career interruptions.
Younger women now have more educational degrees. But in the total work force, men continue to have the education advantage — especially when you consider college majors. Men are more likely to have majored in higher-paying sciences and women in humanities.
Researchers have recalculated earnings differences between the sexes taking all this, as well as things like parental status and number of children, into account. When they do, they find that women make between 93 and 95 cents for every dollar earned by men — a difference worth noting but one that doesn’t make for ef
fective political warfare.
Does discrimination account for the remaining 7 cent gap? It probably explains some of it. But there could be other differences between male and female workers that we can’t measure.
Consider this example. Female pediatricians earn less than male — even while controlling for many of the factors we’ve seen. But several studies show that discrimination may not account for the rest of the gap.
Men are more focused on career advancement, income and long-term earning potential, according to a 2006 AMA Survey of Physicians, while women were more interested in scheduling flexibility.
Female physicians work fewer hours overall, other AMA data indicate, and see fewer patients than their male counterparts. Women doctors are also considerably less likely to own a group practice.
What’s suggested here is that even if we could end all discrimination, the bulk of the gender gap would remain.
However skillfully wielded, blunt objects won’t change that.
Kay Hymowitz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author, most recently, of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, just published in paperback.