What's really behind the wage gap headlines?


It has become a rite of spring – the annual announcement that women earn 70 to 77 percent of what men earn on average or over a lifetime.

The two pay gap studies most cited right now are from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). These organizations have a legislative agenda and a need to keep donations flowing in. I agree with many of their overall goals – improved access to daycare, parental leave, family friendly work hours and equal pay for equal work. But specious statistics and distorted data don’t serve their cause well.

The NWLC study leads with this: “Typical working woman stands to miss out on $443,360 over 40 years.” How did they arrive at this number? Using U.S. Census Bureau data they claim there is an $11,084 earning gap between men and women; multiplied by 40, the presumed length of a typical career.

I have downloaded that study, read through the report and footnotes, accessed the Census Bureau website, and failed to find the wage numbers referenced in the study. But even if the numbers are there and I just missed them, how confident should we be that the wage information submitted by citizens is correct? Did the person completing the form get accurate information for every person in the household? Some did, most probably didn’t.

The IWPR study uses Bureau of Labor Statistics data and focuses on the pay gap within common occupations. This report shows that women are paid as much as 40 percent less than men doing the same work. In nursing, one of the most female dominant professions, the study shows male nurses earning 9 percent more than female nurses.

The male and female pay data for the health care professions shown in the IWPR study just doesn’t reflect what I saw when analyzing the pay of four large health care systems between 1998 and 2001. The pay of every employee in every job was double-checked and the range of pay within a job was analyzed. Anything that appeared odd or inequitable was challenged and had to be explained satisfactorily or fixed.

We found just one group of employees in one hospital where gender played a role in pay levels. The head of custodial services, a woman – paid men more than women doing the same work because she felt that physical strength was a factor in job performance. That pay equity problem was fixed.

The pay numbers put forward by the IWPR study just don’t reflect the reality of what I saw day-in and day-out over many years analyzing jobs and pay. I am more than dubious about the large pay gaps claimed by the IWPR study.

So no, I don’t think much of the studies that use the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics data to evaluate gender based pay. Mind you, I am not criticizing the quality of the work done by either agency; just how it is being used to inflame rather than inform.

If you want to be informed on the male/female wage gap I recommend a report available online: “An Analysis of the Reasons for the Disparity in Wages Between Men and Women” by the Consad Research Corporation under a contract with the Department of Labor. The 95 page report is detailed and thorough, doesn’t jump to conclusions on scant evidence – and it hasn’t made a headline.

Pay is a complex issue. The correct answer to most pay related questions is always “it depends.” But I think I can say with some certainty that it doesn’t matter if it is a man or women who steps out of the labor force or cuts back to a part-time job, their career earnings will take a hit.

For reasons that are unchangeable (biology) and unexplainable (different parenting styles of mothers and fathers) women are much more likely to switch to part-time work, take a job with lower pay to be close to home or quit for a few years if family finances allow. Single parents will sacrifice income to focus on their children. It isn’t always fair— it is life.

For 20-plus plus years I performed very detailed analysis on pay and jobs and I have seen some overt, across-the-board gender-based pay discrimination, but nothing close to the scale the pay gap headlines suggest.

I know how women were paid and treated 30 years ago. We are a long way from the days when it was common to use gender and marital status to set pay. These misleading headlines and pseudo studies make it appear as if all the work that my colleagues and I have done over many years didn’t happen.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.


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