Time to Retire the 77 Cents Myth

“Women make just seventy-seven cents for every dollar men earn.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this figure quoted as evidence of workplace discrimination: from my Facebook newsfeed, to my classroom, to the State of the Union Address. I am sure we will hear it many more times in the run-up to the 2016 presidential contest, as the mythic “war on women” has proven such a convenient tactic for avoiding the real issues.

Wage equality seems to be one of those topics where facts do not matter. Evidence and logic do not matter. We are not supposed to think too hard about this, or analyze what other factors might explain the slight difference in earnings between men and women who actually perform the same job with the same level of experience. All that matters to the politicians and activists who quote this figure is that we embrace the narrative that our society is so deeply sexist that the only way to ensure equality for women is through the creation of cumbersome new laws and regulations.

Sorry, but I’m just not buying it.

I know women face obstacles in the workforce. I’ve experienced them myself. I know women are more likely to choose lower-paying careers than are men. I have done this myself. I know women still feel slighted or underestimated on occasion because of their gender. I have felt this way myself. But I refuse to believe in a “glass ceiling” of lingering prejudice keeping me from reaching my dreams. I refuse to believe that my worth as a person is best measured by the amount of dollars another person is willing to pay me to do a job. Not only are these ideas false, they are also deeply harmful to the women and girls who might actually internalize them.

The truth is, women in western democracies have experienced remarkable gains in the last century. In countries like the United States, women now have the same legal rights as men, including the right to vote, own property, and make contracts. Women have the same access to education as men, including access to technical and medical careers. Actual, real-life women have taken advantage of these freedoms to achieve incredible success. Oprah Winfrey, Angela Merkel, and Beyoncé are among the wealthiest, most powerful, and most influential people on the planet. If there really is a “glass ceiling,” perhaps someone forgot to tell them.

Women do face tremendous prejudice and abuse, but mostly in the less democratic nations of the developing world. In Yemen, a woman is considered only half a witness and cannot legally leave the house without her husband’s permission. In Saudi Arabia and Morocco, rape victims can be charged with the crime of fornication. In China, millions of women are subjected to forced abortions every year, a fact that likely contributes to their extremely high rate of female suicide. China is the only country (with the exception of the tiny nation of Sao Tome and Principe) where the rate of suicide is higher for women than men, with one report putting it three times as high. Despite having only 19% of the female population worldwide, China accounts for 55% of all female suicides. Millions of rural Chinese women have used pesticides to end their own lives. And let’s not forget the 200 million women killed in the womb by sex-selective abortion worldwide. These are the figures that should outrage us, not the misleading 77 cents statistic.

Like most of the “evidence” used to support the idea that the United States economy is still deeply sexist, the 77 cents figure uses some pretty misleading methodology. It comes from comparing the average earnings of all full-time women against the average earnings of all full-time men, regardless of education, occupation, or experience. When these important factors are taken into account, the actual “gap” shrinks to about 95 cents on the dollar. For further sources debunking the 77 cents myth, see here, here, or here.

Despite all this evidence, President Obama still used the 77 cents line in his State of the Union Address, earning a rating of “dubious” from Fact Checker. Bernie Sanders became the latest politician to deploy this line for political purposes, using the revised 78 cents figure. And I’m sure we can expect Hillary Clinton to make this and other ill-supported claims of rampant discrimination as she campaigns for the White House primarily on the basis of her gender. (Ironically, Clinton and Obama both pay their female staffers less.)

Women do earn less on average than men, but this is largely due to factors other than sexism. For starters, women tend to choose lower-paying majors and careers, like social work and education. Even women who enter higher-paying careers like medicine tend work fewer hours and choose less lucrative specialties than their male counterparts, resulting in lower salaries.

Women also take off more time from work to have and raise children. Motherhood continues to present obstacles to women’s career prospects, much more so than fatherhood. The conflict between having children and a successful career isn’t just socially constructed; it is biological. Women are the ones who have to be pregnant for nine months, go through the physical exertion of having a baby, and then (let’s face it) be the primary caregiver for their infant. Even if men wanted to, they could not become pregnant, give birth, or breastfeed infants. Someone has to do the tough work of continuing the human species, and that task largely falls on women. More time off from work means fewer opportunities for promotion. Even after the pregnancy and infancy stages, women with children are more likely to value jobs offering greater flexibility and shorter hours so they can better meet the needs of their families. These jobs tend to pay less.

But it’s not all about babies. Studies show women and men tend to have somewhat different values in terms of employment. According to one survey of 1,000 workers, “male workers regard pay, benefits, authority, status and power noticeably more than do female workers. Women placed their greatest workplace values on relationships, respect, communication, fairness, equity, collaboration, and work-family balance.” My guess is even women without children are likely to have these slightly different career priorities. Anecdotally, most of the workaholics I know are men, but most of the women I know seem to understand the importance of balancing work and life.

Is any of this really such a bad thing? Should we discourage women from choosing lower-paying careers where they feel they are making a difference, or taking jobs with more time off to enjoy recreation, community, and family—all in the name of gender equality? If a woman wants to dedicate her life to climbing the heights of the corporate ladder, by all means—let her do it, and don’t treat her any differently. But most of us also want other things, and those other things should be respected, if not equally compensated with our more work-oriented counterparts.

What should be done to help women’s economic prospects?

First, stop blaming everything on sexism. Don’t turn us into a victim group. This doesn’t help anyone, including women who might be discouraged or embittered. Where there is evidence of actual discrimination or sexual harassment, existing laws are sufficiently strong to protect female employees. The beauty of the free market is that in the long run, prejudice does not pay. If a woman thinks she is being paid less than what she is worth, she should: a) ask persuasively for a raise (something women are four times less likely to do), b) find a company willing to pay her what she is worth, or c) start her own company where she can fully control her own salary.

Second, if we are really interested in fighting sexism, we can start by putting human rights back on the table in our relationship with China, something Obama and Clinton have reversed. We need to do more to stand up for the rights of women around the world, including the unborn.

Third, we must be careful to consider the unintended consequences of any law or policy that overburdens employers in the name of being “family-friendly.” Chile recently passed a law requiring employers to provide working mothers with childcare, and as a result women’s salaries declined between 9% and 20%. Consider the following cautionary tale from Spain, which passed a law giving workers with children under seven the right to work part-time:

Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study led by Daniel Fernandez-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.

“One of the unintended consequences of the law has been to push women into the lower segment of the labor market with bad-quality, unprotected jobs where their rights cannot be enforced,” he said.

Make it more costly to hire women, and fewer women will be hired; the ones who are will be paid less.

Fourth, there is another reason women earn less than men, and that is that they are disproportionately hurt by out-of-wedlock births and divorce. 40.9 percent of female-headed families with children live in poverty, while the poverty rate of married families with children is just 8.8%. This is just further evidence that the sexual revolution has been a disaster for women and children. Reducing these causes of female poverty would require strengthening a culture of marriage, which unfortunately does not seem likely to happen in the near-future. In the meantime, expecting women to play the roles of both primary caregiver and primary breadwinner dooms many to dead-end jobs, and their families suffer alongside them.

In conclusion, there are several things we can and should do to help women succeed economically. But the seventy-seven cents line exaggerates the severity of the problem and points us in the wrong direction for answers. We should encourage women to consider more lucrative majors and careers, and to start their own businesses, but only if this is what they want. We should teach women to be more assertive, to “lean in” as the expression goes, but only if they are comfortable with the costs of putting career before family and leisure. We should value the non-monetary contributions made by so many women to their communities, especially those made by stay-at-home moms.

We should not sit around waiting for things to be completely fair and equal because they never will be. Studies have also shown that short men tend to earn less than their taller counterparts. Do we need special initiatives to help them succeed? Should employers be required to hire a quota of men under 5’10”? In 2012, men also accounted for 92% of workplace deaths. Is this the product of discrimination, or simply different occupational choices? Here’s a crazy idea: people should be paid according to their responsibilities and contributions– which are most often the results of individual priorities and decisions– even if this leads to statistical discrepancies between groups.

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