Opinion: Wage gap presents a data interpretation problem

Lucas Misera

Lucas Misera

Women get paid 79 cents on the dollar compared to men.

The statistic permeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign last year, as she made closing the gender wage gap a crux of her platform. She needed a way to mobilize female voters into action against what many began to deem a patriarchal workplace.

In response, many did indeed rally around that number — 79 percent, to be specific.

The percentage, if true, is certainly damning. Living in a country that brands itself a purveyor of equality, women making almost a quarter less than what men make, certainly contradicts this nation’s ideals.

Yet, the methodology behind the 79 percent statistic is, well, glaringly shoddy. And it doesn’t take a graduate-level degree in data analytics to see why.

Consider the grossly simplified formula used behind calculating the number in question: median women’s annual earnings divided by men’s annual earnings.

This calculation doesn’t take into account career choices within the two sexes. As a result, each full-time female worker is wrongly compared to every full-time working male. Yet, the difference in careers that each sex is choosing to pursue may be behind the inflated pay difference.

For example — according to data from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce — the top 10 college majors with the highest returns are represented predominantly by men.

Take petroleum engineering, the major with the highest remuneration rate: Its job holders are 87 percent male. The only major on this list in which females are most represented is pharmaceutical studies, capturing 52 percent of that field.

On the other hand, the 10 lowest-paying fields are comprised primarily by women. Although theology is only 34 percent female, making it the only one on this particular list that is most commonly male, women clearly trend toward majors such as psychology (74 percent female), early childhood education (97 percent) and social work (88 percent).

This isn’t to say that these fields are unimportant. However, if women are more likely to pursue careers in low-paying fields, then comparing their median salaries to those of men is an apples-to-oranges comparison — perhaps underlining the fact that some college degrees are simply more worthwhile investments than others.

Beyond economic variables, the 79 percent statistic also fails to take into account social factors that naturally suppress potential earnings for women in the long term.

For one, women are inhibited by the role in families that they tend to undertake, particularly with children.

According to a USA Today article, women spend nearly twice as much time on household duties than men do, possibly shifting their focus from career advancement to keeping the household intact.

The statistic also fails to consider that — particularly early on in a woman’s career — missing considerable time due to childbirth and maternity leave may hamper an important time frame in the development of critical work experience and skills.

According to Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, some “white-collar jobs are less forgiving of workers who desire more flexible hours, such as a woman with family responsibilities.”

The same piece by Kessler goes on, arguing, “(u)nless women stop getting married and having children, and start abandoning careers in childhood education for aerospace engineering, the gap in wages will almost certainly persist.”

The fight for gender equality is a legitimate and necessary one, but it can’t continually justify itself using misguided evidence.

Kessler’s final point — though it sounds crass — is valid: The wage gap has far less to do with how pay scales are structured. Instead, the problems are rooted in persistent social inequities that plague women.

Those motivated to promote gender equality should push for men to start doing more around the house or for policy that allows men more time off after the birth of a couple’s child so that such a time-consuming responsibility isn’t thrust solely towards the woman.

But please — for the sake of the cause itself — stop exasperating the wage gap statistic. If conservatives are to be closely scrutinized for the dissemination of biased information, then liberals should face the same level of accountability.

Lucas Misera is the opinion editor, contact him at [email protected]