Monthly Archives: June 2016

Wage gap deception

Every year when I teach students about statistics, I offer up a couple canards from both liberal and conservative discourse to show how both ends of the political spectrum play with data in deceptive ways.  I tell the conservative students that man-made global climate change is about as close-to-proven as science gets and that most of those arguing against it are either under-informed or being intentionally deceptive.  I tell the more liberal minded-that the same is true when it comes to those leaders and politicians who use the 77 (now 78) cents to the dollar “wage gap” statistic as liberal “red meat” in order to imply widespread discrimination against women in the workplace.

Arguments against man-made climate change and in favor of the wage gap-equals-discrimination arguments both reflect ignorance of how statistical control works.  When researchers use statistical models to analyze data, they can generally incorporate and account for any known and measured variable in such a way that the effects of the main variables of interests are isolated from other correlated influences.  Thus, one can find out, for instance, the independent effect of carbon dioxide on global temperatures ceterus parabis (“all things being equal”), effectively eliminating other potential measurable sources of climate change like changes in solar radiation, volcanic activity, or ocean currents.

The wage-gap deception is based on a similar misunderstanding of the power of statistical control.  Instead of assuming there are other explanations for the wage gap (as climate change deniers do), wage-gap rhetoric hinges on conveying the impression that there is only a single reason that the median woman earns over 20 cents less than the average man – discrimination.  While it is difficult to measure directly for discrimination, numerous unbiased studies have utilized a variety of variables based on choices of profession, time away from work, and other factors representing different trends in male and female lifestyles and preferences and found that the true wage gap is about 5-6%.  These studies were conducted by organizations like the Department of Labor and academics who crunch such numbers for a living – not exactly groups we think of as being comprised of rock-ribbed conservatives.

So – isn’t 5-6% still bad?  Sure, if you want to insist that the entirety of that estimate reflects discrimination.  There’s some evidence to suggest it isn’t, but the simple truth is that no one can say for sure.  Unfortunately, “94 or 95 cents to the dollar and the rest we’re not sure about” does not exactly make for a great bumper sticker.

Some would argue that women should be encouraged to make different choices about their choice of work and how they balance work and family.  The National Organization of Women and other feminist groups suggest that a main problem is that younger women are discouraged by society from pursuing interests in more lucrative professions like math and science.  There are no quick fixes if they are correct, but certainly I’d agree that cultivating an atmosphere that encourages rather than discourages women to enter such fields is an admirable goal.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t try to convince, say, a Buddhist, to trade fulfillment for a higher pay check, and maybe women are doing a better job of pursuing a fulfilling life than men as-a-whole.

Even if we say that some women might be discouraged by peer, mentor, or societal attitudes from pursuing certain fields, however, it does not let-off-the-hook those who insist on implying the wage gap is based directly on widespread workplace discrimination.  Many public figures, such as the Obama administration figure who was forced to backtrack after using the 77-cents figure as well as President Obama himself, surely know that they are being deceptive – or at least they should.

Since much of the “gap” is attributable to individual choices that tend involve trading “temporal flexibility” for higher pay, pursuing less poorly compensated professions, and time off to raise children, it’s unlikely to change soon.  Laws providing for paid maternity leave are overdue in this country, but such laws might lead to an even larger wage gap in the long term as women exchange work experience for more time with the little ones.

If we want to close the wage gap, however, there is one sure way to do so.  Raise the minimum wage.  Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women – so raising the minimum wage would disproportionately raise the median income of women.

None of this is suggests that women don’t sometimes face discrimination or that it wouldn’t be good to have more women in government and the higher echelons of business . . . only that more often than not Democrats have the facts on their side in Washington debates and there’s no need to muddy the waters by stooping to the level of those on the other side of the aisle that like to play fast and loose with the truth.