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Misleading statistic in women’s pay debate leads to incorrect conclusions about society

Milam's Musings,

Equal pay for equal work seeks to address the pay gap between men and women, but the issue has been framed wrongly by progressive feminists, conservatives and my fellow libertarians.

First, let's start with the basic argument advanced by progressive feminists: women make 78 cents for every dollar a man makes.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that, and this statistic is a disingenuous, albeit widely-dispersed, figure.

For starters, comparing the 2013 median annual earnings in the United States between women ($39,157) and men ($50,033) takes complex economics and human behavior and tries to aggregate them into a simple formula.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) is a non-profit organization that represents 150,000 members and advocates for the equality of women.

The AAUW released a 2015 report about the gender pay gap and addressed the criticisms from detractors (like myself) that the pay gap is best understood by women's choices, not discrimination.

When accounting for college major, occupation, hours worked, age, marital status and so on, the AAUW found the gap to be seven percent between male and female college graduates one year after graduation. The gap then widens to 12 percent in full-time workers 10 years after graduation.

Our discussion about the pay gap would be more honest if we started with the fact that women make 88 to 93 cents for every dollar a man makes versus 78 cents for every dollar.

This is not an unimportant statistical difference. If we acknowledge women's choices, then we can find more common ground with our ideological counterparts. Therein, we can begin the work of unpacking the discrimination, which may inform the seven to 12 percent.

Moreover, feminists, most of all, should not be the ones so readily dismissing women's choices. Again, we can talk about the gender stereotypes, discrimination and patriarchal culture at large that may influence those choices.

For instance, why women seem to avoid the STEM fields for lesser paying occupations, such as teaching and social services. One hint, according to a White House fact sheet: "Forty percent of those who leave [STEM fields] cite a 'macho' culture as the primary reason."

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This is why I often distinguish myself as a libertarian feminist. I want to fix the culture. I want solutions from the grassroots, not the top down and most certainly not from the government.

The same government (I'm going to use this as a catch-all term for local, state and federal governments), it should be pointed out, spent the better part of the early 20th century trying to keep women out of the work force and from competing with men.

That intention, however, has come to be equated with progressive and feminists reforms, which I find to be Twilight Zone-levels of peculiar.

Consider, if you will, the following two quotes taken from two different articles published in The New York Times.

"Can they (women) protect themselves? Hardly. To tell the truth, she is not a competent guardian of her future life. Now, what is the effect of working young women … it is draining them of that stamina and vitality which ought to be saved to enable them to face successfully the strains and burdens of wifehood and motherhood."

"So-called 'welfare' legislation is not asked for or wanted by real working women. These 'welfare' bills are drafted by self-styled social uplifters who assert that working women do not know enough to protect themselves, aided by a few women who once worked but who are now living off the labor movement."

Would you be surprised to know the first quote comes from a progressive and the second quote comes from the Equal Opportunity League?

The former quote is from "Penalty Woman Pays to Industrial Progress," published May 03, 1908, a printing of Professor Edward A. Ross's speech to Chicago, a progressive, a sociologist and a eugenicist (as progressives tended to be at the turn of the century).

The latter is from "Women's Work Limited by Law: Equal Opportunity League Fighting Legislation Which Restricts Their Hours of Labor," published January 18, 1920.

Even more astonishing to our modern conventional thinking is that the League was frustrated with legislators for not allowing women to work more than eight hours in a day.

"Making it a crime to employ women even five minutes after the eight-hour day kills the principle of equal pay for equal work," the League said.

Quite the different context for "equal pay for equal work," huh?

This goes beyond the purview of this particular article, but I can't also help but point out that the League voiced opposition to the minimum wage for similar reasons: "It is a well-known fact that a minimum wage always becomes the maximum, and that such a bill, affecting women only, while purporting to be for their benefit, would really be a serious handicap to them in competing with men workers for desirable positions."

What a change almost 100 years makes. The social uplifters and the League at that time were both correct about what that legislation would do - stunt the choices of women and the potential economic rise, especially in which to compete with men.

As Ross said, after all, women don't know what's best for them, which I would argue is the core of progressive thinking, anyhow ("we" know what's best for you).

The fact that the intentions have changed from nefarious to well-intended doesn't change what actually happens in reality.

But here's why conservatives, and, often, my fellow libertarians, sometimes miss the mark on how they talk about equal pay for equal work.

Mostly it's because they don't even want to acknowledge that a gap still exists, which may be explained by our patriarchal culture and outright sexism by corporate bosses.

As an example, women more than men have to deal with questions of work-life balance when it comes to being working mothers. A Pew Research poll in 2007 found that 41 percent of adults think working women are bad for society.

Attitudes haven't exactly shifted in the following years. Another Pew Research poll in 2013 found that only 16 percent of Americans said having a mother who works full time is an "ideal situation" for children and 33 percent said it's best to have a mother who doesn't work at all.

Moreover, mothers in 2013 spent an average of 14.2 hours per week on housework, compared with fathers' 8.6 hours. With child care per week, it's 10.7 hours and 7.2 hours, respectively.

These figures are eyebrow-raising, but are not correctable through top-down government legislation.

Whenever there are issues in society, I wish our first thought wasn't, "How can we remedy this with a law?" Instead, I wish we thought, "How can I find common ground with my fellow human beings to persuade and educate them about this issue?"

And to that latter point, we can only do that with the "equal pay for equal work" discussion if we're starting from honest figures.