The Pay Gap Is Not as Bad as You (and Sheryl Sandberg) Think

By Ruth Davis Konigsberg | Time Magazine | March 07, 2013 

It’s a galling and often cited statistic: women make 77 (or 81, or 82) cents to a man’s dollar. President Obama campaigned on it last year, announcing in an ad that “women being paid 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men isn’t just unfair — it hurts families.” Everyone from Lilly Ledbetter to Marlo Thomas has repeated it. And there it is on Page 6 of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In:

Progress also remains equally sluggish when it comes to compensation. In 1970, American women were paid $.59 for every dollar their male counterparts made. By 2010, women had protested, fought and worked their butts off to raise that compensation to $.77 for every dollar men made.

Then Sandberg drops the topic of the pay gap altogether (although she later tackles raises and promotions). For someone writing a book on how women hold themselves back — “by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning forward” — this is a big missed opportunity. As it turns out, about two-thirds of that supposed pay gap can be attributed not to institutional discrimination but to choices that women make.* Here’s why:

Let’s first dispense with the fallacy that the pay-gap ratios so often cited are for women and men doing the same job. They are not. If they were, then a female marketing account manager making $77,000, while her male colleague with the same title and work experience makes $100,000, would have a very good case to sue her employers under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which protects men and women from sex discrimination in pay rates. The pay-gap ratios don’t even refer to men and women in the same occupation.

Take 77 cents to the dollar: that figure is actually the annual median earnings of women to men for 2010, based on data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. The other figure you often hear, 81 cents to the dollar, is the average median weekly earnings of women to men for 2012, based on data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In both cases, the comparison is on an extremely broad level “that doesn’t account for differences in occupation, in experience level and a lot of other things that affect income,” says Tom Nardone, the associate commissioner for employment and unemployment statistics at the BLS, who makes a point of adding such a caveat in the second paragraph of a 91-page report on women’s earnings. ”We at statistical agencies try to be very careful about defining our data, but we can’t control how other people use the information.”

The weekly earnings data are for wage and salary workers only and do not include self-employed workers. That means most of them work more than 35 hours a week, which minimizes the difference in the number of hours men and women work in general. (Yes, men work more.) However, some argue that the annual earnings number would be more accurate because it includes bonuses and other types of compensation not captured in the weekly earnings. What kind of jobs get bonuses? Well, investment banking for one, where, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, women make up only 35% of all employees and 15% of executives and senior-level executives.

Which brings us to the bringing-it-on-ourselves part. Your occupation greatly dictates income, and women disproportionately enter low-paying fields such as teaching, nursing and social work. One could argue that those fields are low-paying because they’ve traditionally been occupied by women who were denied other career paths and were therefore devalued by society and in economic terms, but regardless, if we truly wanted to narrow the pay gap, women need to enter more lucrative fields.

To be able to do that, women must choose to study subjects that lead to more lucrative occupations — information technology or economics over art history, for example. But they are not. Amazingly, the percentage of undergraduate computing and information-science degrees earned by women has actually dropped from 37% in 1985 to 18% in 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. No wonder the Labor Department also reports that from 2002 to 2012, the percentage of female programmers dropped from 25.6% to 20%.

If you control for things like college majors and occupations, the pay gap, or the discrepancy between men’s and women’s earnings that can be attributed to bias and discrimination, shrinks down to about one-third of its size. This is what the American Association of University Women determined when it surveyed male and female college graduates one year after graduation and found that, absent all explanatory variables, even including a graduate’s GPA and how selective their school was and how long they were unemployed after graduation, the women made 93% of what the men were making. In other words, 93 cents to the man’s dollar. Not 77 cents. Not 81 cents. Ninety-three cents.

Sandberg is absolutely right that women face internal as well as external barriers in reaching parity with men in the workplace. But one of those barriers may be misinterpreting statistics in such a way that we underestimate how much those external barriers are actually within our control to change.


Here’s an example of a choice that Male Matters thinks perfectly illustrates why even in the same professions women average a lower income:

In 2011, 22% of male physicians and 44% of female physicians worked less than full time, up from 7% of men and 29% of women from Cejka’s 2005 survey.”


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One Response to The Pay Gap Is Not as Bad as You (and Sheryl Sandberg) Think

  1. Judy is a Punk says:

    I’ve seen this point debated, and I agree with it somewhat, but it’s also a more complex issue. I’ll do my best to explain, and I hope you’ll agree that my view is, “Some of it’s about gender, but much of it is about choices.” So first of all, the 77 cents to a dollar point is false. Let’s throw it out. You cannot take all women, who may work in a variety of fields, anywhere from 10 hours a week to 80 hours a week, and compare them to all men, who include the President and (when the studies were last done) Steve Jobs.

    It’s also true that in large cities like Boston and New York and Dallas and Los Angeles, college-educated women earn $1.02 for every dollar a man earns, providing they’re under 30. This is no good for me, as I’m past that age, but it’s good news for younger women, especially, as the study shows, women between the ages of 21 and 27. This is a gender issue actually, one that disadvantages men. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hiring, and my boss (often male!) has told me, “I’d rather hire a woman. None of those men give a shit about turning in a quality product. They all live with their parents anyway.” Great, let’s judge all men by what some dumb Judd Apatow movie says. What insightful workers we are! If you ever want to know where the dumb male stereotype comes from or why young men can’t launch, that’s it, right there.

    But, wait, at 30, the situation reverses, and the farther men and women climb up the ladder, the greater the salary gap becomes. So what happens in a woman’s 30s? Many women start families. Even if they don’t take time off of work, the perception is that they’ve just about hit their final level of promote-ability. But some of us, like me, don’t want kids. Ever. Doesn’t matter for us – the assumption is there, and I can’t write “My husband is clamoring for a vasectomy and pregnancy makes me puke” in a cover letter, can I? It’s not polite. The other problem is behavioral too: we’ve eliminated those “illegal” questions, like queries about your family plans. And actually, I agree with Sheryl Sandberg on the matter of “illegal interview questions”: time to bring them back. In a perfect world, I’d go brawling before I take a hit to my life savings or retirement account because I wear a wedding ring, but since that’s the system for now, my husband and I opted out of rings. (Yes, we actually opted out of rings so I could earn more money. You have to be smart.)

    But I don’t much care if the mothers or aspiring mothers don’t like being asked about their plans – I’m DAMN sick of incurring lifelong financial penalties and earning less than I deserve because of what other women choose to do with their lives and bodies. The whole “Mothers who work fewer hours, and women who work in low-paying, low-skilled fields deserve as much as male techies working 80-hours a week” is one MAJOR area where feminism lost me. Fuck you, ladies. I worked my ass off for that money. When you put in the time and effort to learn a rare and difficult group of skills, like web development and UI design, you can make more money too.

    I work in high-tech, I have made more money for my employers than 95% of my male competition, and I work longer hours than just under 99% of them. (I can’t top the rare person who is able to work 18-hour days and sleep for two more, and they’re 1-2 out of every 100 workers. One of my good friends in high school was one, and that guy literally could not sleep for more than four hours a night, or he felt lousy.) Despite what my headhunters claim – and that’s the other factor lowering older women’s earnings: women who negotiate lose “likability points” in their employers’ eyes, and may negotiate themselves right out of a company that would gladly give a raise to their male counterparts – it is NOT outrageous for me to demand anywhere from $100-150K for a director job. In fact, anything below $115 is lower than market for a good technology director where I live. Call it lingering ideas about how ideal women vs. “impolite” women behave left over from a less egalitarian era, call it short-sightedness, call it what you will, but the women in my network are fuming with frustration because their demands for salaries commensurate with their achievements, results, time put in, and the going market rate are met with protests, stonewalling, silence, and even retaliation.

    So in sum: There’s a gap, and there’s not a gap. Some of it’s behavioral, some of it’s gender-related. Some of the gender bias hurts men (i.e. young men), and some of it hurts women (i.e. women ages 30-49, women in management). All of it works together to ensure the average middle-class income has fallen far behind inflation. And that’s really what keeps me up at night.


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