In President Obama's final State of the Union address Tuesday night, he included “equal pay for equal work” among his “traditional list of proposals for the year ahead.”
Though he only mentioned it briefly, Obama also included in the transcript of his speech the following graphic:
The image, featuring a cheerful 1950s-era secretary, claims women in America are paid 79 cents for every dollar a man makes.
But the “pay gap” Obama cites has been discredited by both government and private sources.
For instance, a 2009 Labor Department report puts the actual pay gap at about 5 cents.
Feminist Hanna Rosin, and the author of “The End of Men”, noted in a 2013 column for Slate that the claim women earn nearly a quarter less for every dollar a man earns is reached by comparing the wages of full-time female workers with the wages of full-time male workers in all occupations.
But not all full-time workers are the same.
Indeed, while “full-time work” is 35 hours a week, in 2014 the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that men were almost twice as likely as women to work more than 40 hours a week, and women almost twice as likely to work only 35 to 39 hours per week.
The 79 cents figure fails to take that difference into account.
Further, nearly all the most dangerous occupations are majority male, and 92% of work-related deaths in 2012 were to men. Those dangerous jobs demand more lucrative salaries, and it is another factor left out of Obama's figure.
There is also an “ask gap”. A 2014 survey by Glamour magazine found that 43% of women had asked for a raise in their current job, in contrast to 54% of men. Additionally, only 39% of women asked for more than the amount they were offered, contrasted with 54% of men.
In her column, Rosin cites data that put the wage gap in 2013 closer to 91 cents for every dollar then notes:
“The point here is not that there is no wage inequality. But by focusing our outrage into a tidy, misleading statistic we’ve missed the actual challenges. It would in fact be much simpler if the problem were rank sexism and all you had to do was enlighten the nation’s bosses or throw the Equal Pay Act at them.”
She adds there is more complicated set of questions at work:
“Is it that women are choosing lower-paying professions or that our country values women’s professions less? And why do women work fewer hours? Is this all discrimination or, as economist Claudia Goldin likes to say, also a result of 'rational choices' women make about how they want to conduct their lives.”
Equal pay is an easy talking point, but the data shows that a talking point that comes too easily is usually misleading.