Equal pay debate smart politics, not smart math

04/23/2014 5:51 PM

04/24/2014 4:07 PM

In an election year, it’s inevitable that both political parties will select bumper-sticker-friendly wedge issues upon which to build their campaigns.

That’s just smart politics.

For Democrats in 2014, that means amplifying their effective “war on women” mantra from 2012 with their latest weapon of choice: the wage gap.

The White House is leading the charge with its recurrent claim that women are paid 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man — purportedly the result of systematic workplace discrimination across industries that the president calls an “embarrassment.

It is outrageous — not to mention illegal under the Equal Pay Act of 1963 — that a woman should be paid less than a male counterpart for the same work.

I would volunteer to lead the march on Washington and demand pay equity if such a statistic were true. The problem is, it’s not.

And it’s equally outrageous that policymakers continue to use what economist Thomas Sowell deemed a “statistical fraud” in a dishonest attempt to sow discord and score political points.

To be fair, the 23-cent wage gap was not conjured out of thin air. It represents the ratio of the difference between women’s median earnings and men’s median earnings, as calculated by the Census Bureau.

But as many objective analysts have asserted ad nauseam — including the Washington Post Fact Checker, which gave the stat two Pinocchios — the number doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

First, a Bureau of Labor Statistics annual report found that “On average in 2012, women made about 81 percent of the median earnings of male full-time wage and salary workers,” when looking at weekly wages.

That would represent a wage gap of 19, not 23 cents. As American Enterprise Institute scholars Andrew Biggs and Mark Perry concede, “Give or take a few percentage points, the BLS appears to support the president’s claim.”

There’s more. The same BLS report notes that “men are more likely than women to have a longer workweek” — almost twice as likely, in fact, and once this factor is accounted for, the pay gap is reduced to about 12 cents.

The gap narrows further when comparing “apples to apples” — or men and women with similar experience and lifestyles.

Biggs and Perry explain, when considering the issue of marriage and children, “The BLS reports that single women who have never married earned 96 percent of men’s earnings in 2012.”

It’s true, as Bloomberg writer Megan McArdle points out, that “The residual gap that’s left after you control for age, experience, work hours, choice of profession and so forth, is small. But it’s not zero.” And like McArdle, I’m willing to concede that the remaining disparity, at least in some cases or some industries, may be the result of discrimination.

But it is equally possible that the wage gap culprit is something less devious.

Anyone who has ever cracked an anthropology textbook knows that biological differences between the sexes translate to differences in behavior. And those differences don’t disappear upon entering the workplace.

A 2003 article in the Harvard Business Review examined three workplace studies and identified a “subtler source of inequality: Women often don’t get what they want and deserve because they don’t ask for it.”

And a 2010 paper by Emily Amanatullah, who is now an assistant professor of management at the McCombs Business School of University of Texas at Austin, concluded that when women negotiated salaries for themselves, they asked for an average of $7,000 less than the men.

To some degree, this is because “in self-advocacy contexts, women anticipate that assertiveness will evoke incongruity evaluations, negative attributions, and subsequent ‘backlash,’ ” — i.e., women care (more than men) how their assertive behavior will be perceived, whether these concerns are justified or not.

We can argue whether the subtle workplace discrimination Amanatullah’s study implies (the fear of being labeled bossy or difficult) is partially to blame for the remaining wage disparity.

But it is certainly not responsible for the kind of wage gap fiction that some politicians are peddling.

Even the Washington Post’s left-of-center columnist Ruth Marcus proclaimed “the level of hyperbole — actually, of demagoguery — that Democrats have engaged in here is revolting.”

She’s right.

If Democrats have it their way, the equal pay debate will rage on through November and beyond, but the 77-cent statistic will continue to be a deception.

And while that may be smart politics, it isn’t smart math.

About Cynthia Allen

Cynthia M. Allen

@cjmallen12

One of more than 200,000 people who flocked to the Lone Star State in 2013, Cynthia Allen's professional baptism by fire occurred in Washington, D.C. Her youth belies her experience and her non-native status dictates nothing about her devotion to her community.

Part of her preparation for becoming Texan entailed watching all five seasons of Friday Night Lights. A self-proclaimed conservative feminist, she is particularly interested in the impact of national issues on the city, county and state.

Email Cynthia at cmallen@star-telegram.com.

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