Segregation in Federally-Funded Job Training Programs Contributes to the Gender Wage Gap

by Cynthia Hess, Ph.D., and Asha DuMonthier

Women and men enter job training programs with similar goals in mind—they want to expand their skill set, increase their earnings, and support their families. However, there is a gender divide in the occupational areas for which women and men receive training, which contributes to to inequalities in men and women’s earnings. Women are more likely to receive training in managerial, technical, and professional occupations, as well as in service and sales and clerical occupations (Figure 1). Men, however, are much more likely than women to receive training in male-dominated occupations like construction and transportation, which tend to have higher earnings than female-dominated jobs. This gender segregation in training programs closely resembles patterns in the labor market as a whole, where women are 72.2 percent of office and administrative support workers, while men are 96.5 percent of installation, maintenance, and repair workers, and more than 97 percent of all construction and extraction workers.

Figure 1. Occupational Breakdown of Training for Adult Exiters, from April 2013 to March 2014

Figure 1 Blog

Source: IWPR compilation of data from Social Policy Research Associates 2015, Table III-21.

Gender segregation in job training programs has important implications for women’s long-term economic security. Data for adults who finished training programs funded by the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) between April 2013 and March 2014 show that while women were the majority of those who received intensive and training services (51 percent, Table II-10) and were, on average, in programs of longer duration than men (Table II-18), their average earnings after receiving WIA services were lower than men’s. In the fourth quarter after finishing adult programs, women who exited programs between July 2012 and June 2013 earned $5,296 compared with $7,188 for men (Table II-31). (Published data do not provide information on earnings prior to receiving WIA services and include all exiters, not just those with full-time earnings.)

Women earn less after completing job training programs in part because female-dominated occupations (occupations where women are more than 75 percent of the workforce) pay less than traditionally male occupations (occupations where men are more than 75 percent of the workforce). In a study of Perkins-funded CTE programs using data from the U.S. Department of Education and Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up over 80 percent of participants in 2010 in postsecondary “Human Services” courses, which prepare students for low-paying service jobs such as Child Care Provider ($9.34 per hour on average) and Cosmetologist ($10.85 on average). In contrast, women were less than 10 percent of participants in “Architecture and Construction” courses, which train students for higher-paying jobs like Electrician ($23.71 per hour on average).

Multiple forces contribute to gender segregation in job training programs. One study found that counseling services may influence women’s decisions to pursue traditional female-dominated career paths. While many women in the study said that they were not interested in nontraditional skills, the number who reported that they were interested was greater than the number who were referred to nontraditional training. What is more, many of the women surveyed said that the career advice they were given did not include information on the likely wages and benefits of different occupations; had they known this information, they might have pursued nontraditional training.

Women pursuing career paths in male-dominated fields may also experience difficulties as a result of hostile work cultures or outright discrimination. In a recent IWPR poll of about 80 financial social workers, the most common explanation given for women’s low share of good-paying jobs in male-dominated fields was discrimination and a lack of a welcoming work and training environments. The scarcity of women in higher-skilled, male-dominated occupations may make women in those training programs and employment settings feel isolated and increase their chances of exposure to harassment and discrimination.

Because women are the primary or co-breadwinner in half of U.S. families with children, women’s lower earnings after completing training programs have serious consequences for families’ economic security. Encouraging women to pursue nontraditional fields through counseling and fostering welcoming and non-discriminatory environments in male-dominated fields are important steps to ending gender segregation in programs and increasing women’s opportunities to secure jobs that will provide economic stability for themselves and their families.

Cynthia Hess, Ph.D., is Associate Director of Research at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Asha DuMonthier is a Mariam K. Chamberlain Fellow for Women and Public Policy at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

IWPR Commemorates the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women Report

by Jessica Milli, Ph.D.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of 1963’s American Women: Report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor sponsored a series of Scholars’ Papers. As part of this effort, IWPR prepared papers on parental leave and on occupational segregation and the wage gap.

Paid Parental Leave in the United States reviews research and data sources on paid leave for family related purposes. Despite the recommendation in the 1963 report that paid maternity leave be pro­vided for female workers, it took another thirty years’ for the passage of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) to provide at least unpaid job protected maternity and paternity leave. Due to the structure of the FMLA, as of 2012, only 59 percent of workers were eli­gible for FMLA leave. With the exception of a few states with more generous family leave policies, FMLA leave is unpaid, and many families cannot afford to use it as much as they would like.

The IWPR paper also details previous research on the economic and health benefits of paid family leave. Paid family leave can improve the labor force at­tachment of workers, improve employee morale and productivity, reduce worker turnover, and positively impact economic growth. Such benefits to firms may help offset the costs of implementing paid leave policies. Research further suggests that expanding paid leave is likely to have economy-wide benefits such as reduced spending on public assistance programs and increased labor force participa­tion. Access to leave, whether it is paid or not, can increase breastfeeding rates and duration, reduce the risk of infant mortality, and increase the likelihood of infants receiving well-baby care and vaccinations.

The paper also reviews federal data sources on paid and unpaid leave and highlights gaps and inconsistencies in the information avail­able. The paper argues for a more sys­tematic federal effort to improve the data infrastructure on this important benefit for working families.

Occupational Segregation and the Gender Wage Gap documents changes since the 1960s in the types of jobs that men and women perform and links those trends with recent lack of change in the gender wage gap. Women have made large strides toward equality in the labor force, including increasing their representation in occupations that have traditionally been dominated by men— such as management, accounting, and law. However, not all occupations have seen increased integration over the years, and many remain heavily male- or female-dominated. The paper docu­ments that progress has stalled, point­ing out that both progress in improving occupational integration and progress in closing the gender wage gap stalled at the beginning of the last decade. This relationship suggests that occupa­tional segregation should be a priority of policy efforts to address the wage gap, either by focusing on encourag­ing women to enter more integrated or male-dominated occupations, or by im­proving earnings in female-dominated occupations, or both.

The papers are available on the Women’s Bureau website and on IWPR’s website.

Jessica Milli, Ph.D. is an IWPR Senior Research Associate.

6 Things Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler Missed about the Gender Wage Gap

by Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., Barbara Gault, Ph.D., and Ariane Hegewisch

(This post is in response to Glenn Kessler’s two Pinocchio rating of “President Obama’s persistent ’77-cent’ claim” on April 9, 2014, in the Washington Post.)

Glenn Kessler presents a very one-sided discussion of the wage gap in this April 9th “Fact Checker” post in which he increased President Obama’s rating on his use of wage gap statistics from one Pinocchio (in the 2012 campaign) to two—he should have lowered it from one to zero.  President Obama has correctly used a long standing data series issued every year by the Census Bureau.  The 77 percent wage ratio figure is an accurate measure of the inequality in earnings between U.S. women and men who work full-time, year-round in the labor market.

Here are some other things to keep in mind about that statistic:

1) Kessler claims that President Obama uses the 77 percent wage ratio figure because it shows the biggest wage gap when other data series available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show slightly smaller gaps.  Leaving aside how Kessler could get inside the President’s head and know why he picked a certain series, everyone who writes about this issue should know that this figure based on median annual earnings is the historical headline figure that allows the longest comparison across time.

2) Kessler claims that the other series—weekly or hourly earnings—are more accurate, but there is simply no basis for saying so.  The 77 percent figure actually includes the broadest range of kinds of earnings; for example annual bonus payments are a big part of remuneration in some fields and are included in the 77 percent figure, but are excluded from the weekly or hourly earnings figures.

3) In his first fact check column (posted online at 6:15 am on April 9, 2014), Kessler failed to note that other measures show a much larger gap than the 23 percent figure President Obama used.  If part-time workers were included, a figure that Statistics Canada uses, the wage ratio would be 71 percent and the gap 29 percent.  The United Kingdom has used life-time earnings ratios.  One IWPR study found that across 15 years (ending in 1998, using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics), the typical American woman earned just 38 percent of the typical man.  The Urban Institute, using Social Security earnings data, finds that the typical wife earns about 50 percent of what her husband does across their working lives. Kessler had updated his column to add mention of these other measures, but fails to alter his conclusion that the President used the biggest wage gap.  In fact, the figure the President used falls in the middle of the range and is the one most commonly used for the past 60 years.

4) Kessler emphasizes that women ‘choose’ different and lower-paying college majors than men and seems to think such differences mean that the wage gap measure is not a good measure of economy-wide wage inequality.  ‘Choice’ is, of course, an unverified assumption. There is considerable evidence of barriers to free choice of professions, ranging from lack of unbiased information about job prospects to actual harassment and discrimination in male dominated jobs. It is highly likely that there are many women who are freely choosing to become social workers, and are making well-informed decisions, and the same is likely to be true for men choosing to be engineers. However, there are no hard facts on how many, or indeed, how many would ‘choose’ otherwise in a world of complete information and nondiscriminatory employment.  For example, in a world where half of engineers were women and half of social workers were men, men and women might ‘choose’ very differently than they do now. We do know that young women and men generally express the same range of desires regarding their future careers in terms of such values as making money and having some flexibility and autonomy at work, as well as time to spend with family members.

5) There are legal cases, as well as social science research studies, that show that, just by the mere fact of being a mother, women’s advancement opportunities shrink, and just by being a father, men’s grow. Yet, there is no proof that being a mother makes a woman less productive on the job.  And why should women who may be decades past the phase of active childrearing still be suffering a wage penalty?  While it is true that women typically take more time away from work for child rearing than do men, that decision often makes economic sense when a wife’s wages are lower than her husband’s—equal pay would likely lead to more equitable sharing of child rearing and to women and men working in the labor market about the same amount over their lifetimes.  Research shows subsidizing the cost of child care and providing paid parental leaves of up to six months would help women and men return to work sooner. While Kessler has said the goal of his Fact Checker column is to provide needed context to what political leaders say, this is a part of the needed context he omitted entirely.

6) It is true, as Kessler notes, that when factors such as occupation and parental or marital status are used as control variables in statistical models aiming to explain what ’causes’ the wage gap, the size of that gap will be reduced, and what is left unexplained is generally thought to possibly be the result of discrimination. But it is just as likely that discrimination affects these ‘control’ variables as well as the size of the remaining gap. Unfortunately, Kessler cites only the literature that ignores the possibility of discrimination affecting the control variables.  He cites economist June O’Neill, well-known in the field for her opposition to government intervention to reduce the size of the wage gap. He also cites a study commissioned by the George W. Bush administration and done by a conservative research firm, CONSAD, which Kessler “camouflages” by saying the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank cited it.  Kessler fails to cite peer reviewed literature surveys published in mainstream economics journals, including papers by Francine Blau and former Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank and co-author Joseph G. Altonji. These latter studies estimate that 25-40 percent of the gross wage gap remains unexplained when factors reasonably thought to affect productivity are included as control variables in the models.

The 77 percent figure covers everyone working full-time, year round and does not reflect only women and men doing exactly the same job in the same firm; however, it does reflect women and men working full-time, year round not earning the same. The wage gap figure reflects a number of different factors: discrimination, lower earnings in occupations mainly done by women, and also the fact that women still tend to be the ones to take more time off work when families have children.  Just because the explanation of the gender wage gap is multi-faceted does not make it a lie.

We should note that on occasion, many politicians—including U.S. presidents—journalists, and others present the 77 percent figure as comparing men and women who do the same jobs, and this unfortunate tendency has led to great confusion.  But President Obama was careful in both his recent State of the Union speech and his Equal Pay Day speech to use the figure without that inaccurate qualifier. In his 2008 campaign, his literature often used the phrase ‘unequal pay for an equal day’s work’—that phrase is an accurate way to refer to men and women who both work full-time earning different pay.

Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., is a MacArthur Fellow and the president and founder of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Barbara Gault, Ph.D., is the vice president and executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Ariane Hegewisch is a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Bridging the Gap: Bringing the Benefits of Paid Family Leave to American Workers #FAMILYAct

by Lindsey Reichlin and Stephanie Román

ImageImageThis blog post was crossposted at MomsRising.

In its founding year, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) analyzed the costs to workers of not having unpaid leave for childbirth, personal health needs, or family caregiving in its inaugural publication, Unnecessary Losses: Costs to Americans of the Lack of Family and Medical Leave. IWPR’s research showed that, by not recognizing the  need for work-life balance, established policies not only failed to support workers and their families, but were costly to taxpayers.

Now 20 years old, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has become a cornerstone of U.S. employment law and human resource policy. But the law stopped short of ensuring true protection to workers: the FMLA only guarantees unpaid family and medical leave for employees, complicating the economic security puzzle for many workers in the United States.

Today, most U.S. employees still lack access to paid family leave. While the FMLA requires that employers provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected care leave for eligible workers, the lack of a paid parental leave statute means the United States is one of only four countries in the world  without publically sponsored paid maternity leave. Paid family leave can bring important benefits to both families and businesses. Yet, many parents with unpaid leave are forced to choose between financial stability and caring for their newborns.

In 2012, only 35 percent of U.S. employees had access to paid family leave to care for newborns, adopted children, or sick family members.[1] The lack of access is even more pronounced for lower income earners: only five percent of the lowest paid workers had this option. Workers with the least financial security, and therefore the least flexibility to go without pay, often do not have access to income when taking time off for caregiving duties. As a result, the burden of unpaid leave can be too much for many women to bear: almost two-thirds of those who needed but did not take unpaid family leave in 2012 were women.

Expanded access to paid leave would mean substantially increasing the amount of time parents take for caregiving. The impact of the Paid Family Leave program in California, available equally to women and men, gives insight into the difference a paid leave statute could make on a larger scale: the program has doubled the length of leave parents–especially low-income parents–take to stay home with their newborns. It has also significantly increased the number of fathers who take advantage of parental leave, even increasing the length of leave they choose to take.

The time parents spend with young children is crucial for their health and development. When that time is paid, the benefits are even greater. Studies show that paid family leave can dramatically decrease mortality rates for infants and children under age 5, a reduction that does not hold for leave that is unpaid or not job-protected. Paid family leave also increases the initiation and duration of breastfeeding, which can reduce children’s risk for serious illnesses, and improve their cognitive development.

Working women, in particular, stand to benefit from paid family leave. Paid leave could help narrow the persistent wage gap that continues to plague working women. Women who take paid maternity leave have seen an increase in wages and depend less on public assistance in the year after giving birth. Paid maternity leave also keeps women in the workforce, which increases the productivity of the labor force overall, and could potentially improve gender equality both in the home and at work.

Paid family leave has the potential to bring important economic benefits to the country as a whole, as well as to individual businesses. Providing paid leave to federal employees, for example, would save the government and taxpayers $50 million dollars per year in turnover costs by improving recruitment and retention of younger employees. Private industry also benefits from the reduction in costs related to recruiting, hiring, and training. Women in California, particularly those in low-wage jobs, were shown to be more likely to return to the same employer following paid maternity leave than those who did not have access to paid leave.

The myriad benefits of paid family leave are clear. And while a handful of states have passed policies that go beyond the federal requirements, there is much to be done to fill the gap left by FMLA and ensure all workers reap the many benefits of paid family leave. The FAMILY Act represents an important opportunity to do just that by instituting family leave insurance for workers. By allowing parents to care for their loved ones without fear of losing their jobs or incomes, the United States would better support the well-being of its workforce, while simultaneously realigning its priorities with the global norm: providing vital paid family leave to its workers.

[1] A variety of data sources measure paid leave coverage rates and some debate exists over which source provides the most accurate picture. This post uses the Department of Labor’s 2012 Family Medical Leave Act survey, which surveys workers and worksites on provision and access to paid leave for parental purposes.


Lindsey Reichlin is the Research & Program Coordinator at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Stephanie Román is the Mariam K. Chamberlain Fellow at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Shining a Light on the Wage Gap

HHFifty years after the Equal Pay Act, employment discrimination persists but is harder to see.

By Dr. Heidi Hartmann

When the Equal Pay Act (EPA) was passed 50 years ago, discrimination was, in many ways, openly accepted in the workplace and women were expected to earn less than men in the same jobs. The EPA signed by President John F. Kennedy on June 10, 1963, helped to reduce this type of blatant employment discrimination, but it is still present and the wage gap persists.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) was founded 25 years ago, at the end of the 1980s, the decade which saw the most sustained narrowing of the gender wage gap since passage of the EPA. Between 1981 and 1990, the gender wage gap closed by more than ten percentage points. In the most recent decade, progress has stalled and the gap narrowed by no more than one percentage point.

There is no single cause for the pay gap. Jobs dominated by women pay less than jobs dominated by men. Over their lifetimes, women still take off more time from paid work for family care than men. Women also still face subtle—and not so subtle—discrimination when they do the similar work to men. Direct discrimination is still estimated to account for between one quarter and 40 percent of the wage gap, according to several reviews of social science research.

Employers can no longer advertise jobs at different rates for men and women. But paying women less for similar performance, giving women less access to career-enhancing opportunities, and making it harder for women to get promoted are practices that continue to hinder progress towards equal pay.

Tackling those types of employment discrimination is surprisingly difficult because employees may still be fired simply for discussing their earnings with a colleague or coworker. In an age when information sharing has become widespread and hearing about a major life event over social networking is not uncommon, exchanging pay information remains frowned upon by many employers. Pay secrecy allows disparities, discrimination, and unequal pay to hide under the rug.

President Kennedy hands out pens at the White House signing of the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963.  Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

President John F. Kennedy hands out pens at the White House signing of the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

According to an IWPR/Rockefeller survey, half of all workers (51 percent of women and 47 percent of men) report that the discussion of wage and salary information is either discouraged or prohibited and/or could lead to punishment. The Equal Pay Act does not protect workers against retaliation for sharing salary information with their co-workers. In the public sector, where pay information is publicly available, a smaller pay gap exists compared to the private sector.

The 2009 Lily Ledbetter Act provides that every paycheck that pays a woman less than a male colleague for equal or similar work can be challenged in court, but the act did not address pay secrecy. Ledbetter worked for a company that prohibited the discussion of one’s salary. After 18 years on the job, Ledbetter sued when, in an anonymous note from a coworker, she received evidence that she was being paid unfairly. The Paycheck Fairness Act was introduced in the last Congress, but failed to pass to a vote in the Senate. This bill would have protected workers against retaliation for sharing pay information.

Women don’t have the time to wait to earn the same as men because their families need the money now. According to the most recent estimate from IWPR, however, the wage gap is not expected to close until 2057. Many women working today will never see equal pay, harming their long-term earnings and leaving them with lower retirement income.

In an age where women in the United States are almost half the workforce, are more likely to gain higher levels of education than men, and increasingly are the main or co-breadwinner in families, we cannot wait for another 44 years for the gender wage gap to be finally relegated to the history books.

Dr. Heidi Hartmann is President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 

Obama is Right About His Wage Gap Statistics

By Heidi Hartmann

Despite recent criticism from “The Fact Checker” blog on The Washington Post, there is nothing at all misleading or biased about President Obama’s use of the 77 percent figure as a measure of wage inequality between women and men in the United States. Women’s median earnings for year round, full-time work in 2010 of $36,931 amounted to 77.4 percent of what men’s median earnings for year-round, full-time work were in the same year ($47,715). These numbers come from the Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) and include the non-institutionalized civilian population who are either self-employed or work for wages or salary and are 15 years of age or older. These data are reported on an annual basis each year in August or September by the Census Bureau based on a household survey they conduct. This particular earnings series—annual median earnings for full-time, year-round workers—has the longest history, most likely explaining why it is the most frequently cited data series. It is the series on which NOW’s famous pin saying simply 59¢ was based, as that represented the wage ratio back in the late 1960s when NOW was founded. Because this data series has the longest history, its wage ratio serves as a well-known index to measure trends over time.

A Variety of Wage Gap Numbers

There are a range of numbers given for the wage ratio or gender wage gap (generally the gap is 100 percent minus the ratio, so with a ratio of 77 percent the gap is 23 percent), stemming from different data sets or different ways of analyzing the data. Each can be correct, depending on what the analyst wants to study. Each data set and methodology yields estimated pay gaps. Each is based on a survey, generally of a sample of all households, though wage data can also be gathered from samples of employers or of administrative records such as unemployment insurance or Social Security earnings records. Generally no data set is complete; all are subject to both sampling and non-sampling errors. Furthermore, different researchers may choose to extract different elements of data. For example, some researchers may restrict the age range of workers to prime age adults, those aged 25 to 54, in order to compare those for whom education is generally complete but who have not yet reached retirement age. To illustrate the burden of inequality faced by women of color, some researchers might compare the earnings of minority women to white men; others restrict the comparison of the earnings of minority women to those of minority men. Both ways can be correct depending on what one wants to illustrate.

In the United States, researchers generally restrict the comparisons to those who work full-time, whether on a weekly basis or an annual basis, but in other countries, for example Canada, total earnings of all workers (both those who work full time year-round and those who work part time or part year) might be compared in a gender wage ratio. If we do that in the United States we get a wage ratio of 72.4 percent and a larger gap of 27.6 percent. Although the Post‘s fact checker claimed that President Obama picked the wage ratio that made gender inequality look the worst, he clearly did not—he could have picked this one.

Another even smaller wage ratio (and larger wage gap) was generated by IWPR in our report entitled Still a Man’s Labor Market (February 2004), where based on a different data set, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, on a survey of households conducted by the University of Michigan, we calculated that across 15 years, prime age women earned just 38 percent of what prime age men earned, for a staggering gender gap of 62 percent. This ratio is just as valid and just as accurate as others. It is telling us that across a 15-year period the typical woman in the United States earns only 38 percent of what the typical man earns. As the study points out, the reason women earn so much less across 15 years is that they spend more time out of the labor market; women typically work both fewer years and fewer hours per year than do men. No one would take this measure as a measure of discrimination by employers, but as a measure of women’s economic independence or lack of it or of what women contribute to family income across 15 years, this is an excellent measure. This type of life-time measure was used by the United Kingdom under the Labor government.

A larger wage ratio and smaller wage gap is generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the Current Population Survey by looking at median weekly earnings for full-time workers each week of the calendar year and then combining those medians to get an annual median weekly earnings figure. Currently this ratio is a bit higher than the annual ratio released by the Census Bureau, standing at 82.2 percent for 2011. As an IWPR fact sheet shows, in some years, these two ratios are virtually identical, yet the Post fact checker made a big deal of how President Obama chose the lower ratio. Not so, President Obama just chose the most commonly used wage ratio. And, contrary to the fact checker’s claim, there is nothing superior about the weekly measure. It is not, for example, more inclusive: on the one hand it includes some workers who work full-time but not all year, but on the other hand it excludes the self-employed. It also underestimates earnings from annual bonuses—a substantial part of income in some high paying professional jobs and a source of income where a number of law cases show that women lose out.

In many countries an hourly wage ratio is used to avoid the measurement problem of full-time male workers working slightly more time than full-time female workers. Since, in the United States, some workers are paid on an hourly basis and others on a weekly basis, using either measure requires calculating a consistent wage measure, and the BLS does not routinely generate an hourly wage rate for all workers.

Response to Criticisms of the Wage Gap Measure

The most frequent criticism I hear of the wage gap is that it is comparing apples and oranges—it’s not comparing women and men in the same jobs or women and men who have the same education or same college major or whatever, and therefore the whole gap cannot be considered the result of pay discrimination. Interestingly, I don’t know of any individual or group who claims the whole pay gap is due to discrimination, so I don’t know why so much hot air is spent saying that it isn’t all due to discrimination. Many economists, sociologists, and other researchers have spent years trying to identify how much of the gap can be explained by factors that might reasonably affect wages, such as work experience, education, and so on. Generally in these analyses what cannot be explained by reasonable factors is considered possibly or likely the result of discrimination. Several comprehensive literature reviews that have been published in peer reviewed scholarly journals conclude that about 25 to 40 percent of the wage gap remains unexplained. But most of these studies do not assess whether some of the differences observed between women and men that might help explain the gender wage gap, like college major, are themselves the result of discrimination or of limited choice sets faced by women and men. In a world where most social workers are women and most engineers are men, few women and men may consider training for occupations that are nontraditional for their gender.

Much is also made of women’s choice to bear children and to spend some time out of the labor market as a result. But is that just a woman’s choice, or is it also a societal necessity? Years after that labor market absence should women still be suffering a wage penalty for that societal necessity? Or should society try to equalize the playing field by providing paid parental leave, encouraging fathers to share equally in child rearing, and providing subsidized, high quality child care to facilitate both parents’ return to the labor market?

The Case for Government Action

As Rachel Maddow recently pointed out on her news show, the existence of the wage gap should not be in dispute—the gap is there as measured in all the data sets released by federal government agencies. What is being argued about is whether that gap is meaningful; whether, if we can explain it by several reasonable factors, we don’t have to worry about it; whether we can pretend it isn’t really there. Conservatives, as she pointed out, tend to argue there is no gap, at least no gap that can be attributed to employer discrimination and therefore no gap that government policy needs to address. Liberals, in contrast, tend to argue there still is employer discrimination (with several horrendous cases of it coming to light each year as women bring legal actions against a wide variety of employers, despite the difficulty of doing so), and that, furthermore, a case can also be made for minimizing the negative economic effects of child bearing, particularly on women.

If we generally believe that women and men are equally talented and work equally hard on the job, that they tend to value the same things about work (such as making money and having some flexibility on the job), then they ought to be able to find opportunities in the labor market that pay them about the same. Yet while the evidence suggests that women and men generally do have equal ability and work equally hard and have equal value preferences, the evidence also suggests that they do not find labor market opportunities that tend to pay them about the same. In my view, this makes the case for government intervention.

The gender wage gap is a good measure of the lack of equal earnings between women and men in the labor market. Many women and men believe the gap should be smaller, that such a large gap as we have in the United States is unfair and reflects an unfair tendency for women to get paid less for what they do than men get paid for what they do. Moreover, such unequal pay inevitably leads to the misallocation of our human resources and a general reduction in U.S. productivity. Not only do women and their families suffer from unequal pay, but our society as a whole suffers as well, a circumstance that furthers the case for government intervention.

Heidi Hartmann is the President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The Wage Gap: Myths vs. Realities

By Heidi Hartmann

We owe a debt of gratitude to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for pointing out the differing perceptions people have about the gender wage gap. In April, she invited me on her show to set the facts straight on the wage gap and I hope that I helped her to do that

By now, most Americans are likely familiar with the 77 percent figure, meaning that, at the median, women’s wages equal only 77 percent of men’s wages both for full-time, year-round work (in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available). This figure, provided annually by the U.S. Census Bureau, has come under criticism from conservative economists and others for a variety of reasons for the past several decades—so much so, that this simple and accurate figure is now viewed by many media outlets as suspect. One New York City newspaper even refused to allow an op-ed writer to include a number such as this provided by IWPR based upon government data.

On an April 30 broadcast of  the Sunday morning television show, Meet the Press, Ms. Maddow pointed out that another guest on the show, conservative-leaning CNN commentator Alex Castellanos, seemed to deny that men’s and women’s wages are unequal. After first countering that wages were equal, Mr. Castellanos said they were unequal but that was due to good reasons such as women working in fields like science or math, or women taking time off to have children, and so on. Mr. Castellanos was echoing justifications provided by conservative economists over the years to ignore the size of the wage gap by imagining that it is really much smaller than the data show, or that it may reflect women’s preferences—therefore, no government action to end discrimination is necessary.

While often those on opposite sides of an issue agree on facts but disagree on solutions, Ms. Maddow’s point is that, in terms of the wage gap, there exists a major difference in belief about the facts. In such circumstances, it is impossible to come to a compromise and agree upon a solution. Just as conservatives have spent decades challenging the role of government in regulating pollution, banks, or big business, they have spent decades challenging the popular wage gap number, and for a similar reason—to avoid policy changes. Let’s review what conservative economists have been saying.

Some economists challenge the 77 percent figure by pointing out it does not compare women’s and men’s earnings in the same jobs: in other words, the figure implicitly compares truck drivers, who are mostly male, with secretaries, who are mostly female, for example. Yes, the figure does compare women and men across the whole economy, but do we believe women should receive lower pay because they are any less talented, competent, or hard working than men? Given their equal competency, shouldn’t both women and men be able to find jobs in the economy that pay them what they’re worth?

When citing the wage gap, it may be more accurate to say, as President Obama often does, that women earn only 77 percent of what men earn for an equal day’s work (rather than for equal work).

A second set of reasons economists give for challenging the 77 percent figure is that the women and men being compared are not identical. More women than men have likely taken at least a year off from work in the past to take care of children, even if they are working full-time, year-round now. Also, more working women than working men are single parents. More married working fathers than married working mothers have stay-at-home spouses, allowing them to focus on full-time paid work.

Critics who cite these issues suggest it would be more accurate to compare single workers without children in restricted age ranges, where time spent working and work life careers are presumably more similar. But does it make sense to consider only subsets of workers? Shouldn’t women and men expect equal earnings when they provide equal effort and skill on the job whatever their age, marital, or parental status?

Yet another set of economists’ favorite reasons revolves around women’s choices. Perhaps women chose more family-friendly jobs that pay less, for example, because they provide more flexibility in exchange for the lower wages. Interestingly, data about the nature of jobs held by women and men cannot confirm this hypothesis. According to a recent survey IWPR conducted, single mothers have the least flexible jobs and college-educated white men the most flexible jobs.

Ms. Maddow was correct to point out that Mr. Castellanos is denying a reality that many women experience every day, lower pay than they deserve for the work they do. Many economists have been denying this reality for a long time. Let’s hope women’s voices and women’s votes in this election season make it clear that women’s lower wages must be addressed by stronger public policies.

Dr. Heidi Hartmann is the President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.