Forget Everything You Thought You Knew: The Wage Gap Is Only 8 Cents

Photo: Nicolas Bloise for Refinery29.
To hear some feminists tell it, there’s a nefarious, sexist patriarch looming at the top of every workplace, taking a chunk out of women’s paychecks to stop them from making as much money as men. If only women could band together and convince Congress to pass some unicorn legislation that mandated diversity, monitored paychecks, required paid leave, and provided free childcare, we could finally achieve wage equality! Or so the myth goes. But the equal pay movement has a problem. Its chief talking point — "equal work for equal pay" — is deceitful.
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Let’s take a look at the statistic that’s always trotted out to convince women we aren’t rightfully valued at work. No doubt you’re familiar with the phrase "women only earn 77 cents for every dollar a man does." (While that figure can vary a few pennies in either direction, the point remains the same.) That statistic is based on a flawed calculation, though: Equal pay activists usually divide the yearly difference between the median annual incomes of full-time male and female workers to calculate the so-called wage gap. That means income data for all working men and women in America is essentially thrown into a blender, mashed into a homogenous sludge, and poured out as if all those jobs were the same.
The reality is that it’s impossible to draw conclusions about “equal work for equal pay” when the data doesn’t even pretend to evaluate wages across similar professions. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s not even apples-to-oranges. It’s meaningless mush.
Despite the fact that this statistic isn’t a good way to compare male versus female earnings in the American workplace, democratic politicians keep using it, which perpetuates a myth that does women more harm than it does good. Even President Obama was criticized for using this misleading stat about the wage gap in his 2016 State of the Union Address: The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave his talking point “two Pinocchios,” noting that the “‘77 cents’ does not begin to capture what is actually happening in the workforce and society.”
Here’s the good news: Female earning power numbers are much rosier once adjustments are applied for prior work experience, education, industry, and occupation. After controlling for those factors, Cornell University Economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn estimated the wage gap is actually only 8%. Meaning: Women are earning 92 cents for the dollar every man earns.

Let’s just admit it. No one — man or woman — gets to have it all. Men can’t work 80 hours a week and be full-time dads, and women can’t take time off to have and raise kids and then demand to be compensated equally to people who are in the office ‘round the clock.

Amanda Carpenter
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I know what you’re probably thinking: Any gap is unacceptable. It’s a valid point. But the real wage gap mainly boils down to hours worked overall, and the fact is that men work more hours than women do, particularly in high-paying jobs, and that skews the data in their favor.
Harvard economic historian and labor economist Claudia Goldin, a leader in pay gap studies, found that the widest wage discrepancies between men and women occur in occupations that demand specialized workers be available above and beyond the standard 40-hour work week. Think: trial lawyers, and merger and acquisition specialists — jobs where workers are considered irreplaceable and are required to work long nights and weekends; not jobs where workers can easily determine their own schedules and are able hand off duties to one another, like retail managers, teachers, or pharmacists.
Goldin concluded in her 2014 study that the real wage gap can be found in workplaces that disproportionately reward workers for working extremely long, continuous hours. She has also said that the gender gap, in terms of hourly compensation, would “vanish if firms did not have a financial incentive to pay employees working 80 hours a week more than twice what they would receive for 40-hour weeks.”
In practice, that means: If more women were working 80-hour weeks, then the pay gap probably wouldn't exist. That’s not to say women aren’t working hard, or working enough. But until women stop having children or collectively opt to spend more time at work than providing care for kids, some swath of pay gap is likely to persist.
The data is clear — women work less once they begin having children — but the real challenge is managing work and a family once kids are older and have school schedules that don’t fit the non-workday. Women's working hours reduce by 17% the first year after they give birth; that figure jumps to 24% a few years later — which actually makes perfect sense. As kids age, justifying paid childcare for 40-plus hours a week becomes increasingly complicated, especially if a woman's salary doesn't meaningfully offset the price tag.
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This is a cost-benefit analysis that signifies real economics at work. And let me tell you: If I were not fortunate enough to have worked in jobs I completely loved — and was well compensated for — when I had my two children, who are now ages three and five, I probably would have become a stay-at-home mom. Now that they’re a little older, I juggle several gigs — writing for various outlets, contributing to CNN — so I can also be there for soccer practices and family dinners.
Of course I want to earn more money. (Who doesn't?) I just don’t want to do it at the expense of losing precious moments with my kids. That’s my choice. Would some feminists think that I’m a traitor to the cause of working women because I’d rather tuck my kids into bed at night than be stuck in a cubicle in the name of closing the wage gap? I sure hope not.
Let’s just admit it. No one — man or woman — gets to have it all. Men can’t work 80 hours a week and be full-time dads, and women can’t take time off to have and raise kids and then demand to be compensated equally to people who are in the office ‘round the clock. I’m not saying that sexism isn’t real or that women are getting a fair shake; there is plenty of evidence, from Hollywood to fast food chains, that proves that’s not the case.
But the false narrative of pervasive sexism keeps women down at work and carries with it a huge risk, because it convinces women that they are suffering a paycheck penalty entirely because of their gender. The truth is that opportunities for women who want to work full-time or work from home part-time are there, particularly as more workplaces adopt flexible schedules and technologies that support remote work.
Will balancing career and family ever be easy? No. Does real sexism exist in America? Of course it does. Those are issues that deserve our attention. But equal pay advocates aren't doing women any favors by using silly slogans or shaky statistics. Instead, they should be focused on showing women just how bright their career prospects really are.
Amanda Carpenter is an author, political advisor, and former senior staffer to Senators Jim DeMint and Ted Cruz. The views expressed here are her own.
It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
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