Gender wage gap. Yet again.

Kevin Drum had a post the other day in response to Bob Somersby’s frustration with Rachel Maddow refusing to back down on misleading her viewers on the gender wage gap.  First, some Somersby:

Overall, when you aggregate everybody working, women get paid 77 cents for every dollar that men get paid. For the same work, dudes get paid more.

True believers often think it: If they just keep repeating a claim, that will make the claim accurate. In this case, Maddow kept saying that men get paid more “for the same work.” And she used the statistic from Meet the Press, the statistic that launched this dispute:

“Women get paid 77 cents for every dollar that men get paid. For the same work, dudes get paid more.”

Those claims may still be technically accurate—but they’re grossly misleading. Consider what happened when Maddow ended her monologue and let an expert speak…

Hartmann told Maddow she had the far better part of Sunday’s argument. Then, she quickly began to show that this claim isn’t accurate.

Duh! “Of course, these numbers from the…Census Bureau are not really talking about discrimination,” Hartmann said, referring to the “77 cents” figure which Maddow had now been reciting for two straight days. Having thrown that statistic under the bus, Hartmann cited a GAO study.

This study did attempt to measure discrimination, Hartmann said. And what did that GAO study find? According to Hartmann, the study said this:

“Even when you put everything you can possibly think of in the regression equations, the statistical analyses to try to make that gap go away, you can’t explain at least 20 percent of it.”

But twenty percent of “that gap” is only 5.6 cents. (That’s 23 cents divided by five.) According to Hartmann, the GAO study said that women are discriminated against to the tune of 5.6 cents on the dollar. Maddow had been saying the discrimination factor was 23 cents for the prior two days.

Alright, enough of all that.  As you know, I generally love me some Drum, but I think he really got it wrong here:

But this argument sort of misses the point. It’s true that some of the gap goes away when you account for the fact that women tend to work in different jobs than men and take more time off to have children. But that’s all part of the point. 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.

Now Drum is, in a way, exactly right about this.  What he does not seem to appreciate is that– in my experience– the vast majority of the purveyors of this statistics would have you believe (as would Maddow) that this statistic means that women are getting paid 77% as much for exactly the same work.  And that’s so not true.  Every semester when I go through this with my classes– this false interpretation is exactly what most of my students think.  I do not object at all to trying to shrink this gap, but it is so much more than just flat-out wage discrimination, as Maddow would have you believe.  We are talking about undertaking fundamental changes in how society understands the roles of men, women, work, and caring for children.  And I’m all for that, but please, let’s be honest in what we’re talking about on this issue.

For those really into this issue, I recommend the summary sections of this excellent analysis prepared for the Department of Labor.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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