Each September the U.S. Census Bureau puts out information on the annual earnings of male and female workers. We’ll soon know the numbers for 2012, but we already know that in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, women working full time, year round were typically paid just 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts – a loss of $11,084 in 2011. For some women of color the numbers are especially shocking: African-American women working full time, year round are typically paid only 64 cents and Hispanic women only 55 cents for each dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts. Sadly the 77-cent figure hasn’t really budged in the last decade.
In a piece titled The Gender Wage Gap Lie, Hanna Rosin claims that the 77-cents-on-the-dollar figure misrepresents the wage gap. To build her case against the 77-cent statistic, Rosin disregards a few contributors to the wage gap. For example, she compares the depressed wages of women of color only to the depressed wages of men of color, ignoring the overlapping race and gender discrimination women of color experience in the workplace.
But the thrust of Rosin’s complaint is that the 77-cent figure is a broad comparison between men and women’s wages rather than a measure of what women and men make in the same job.
When it comes to the wage gap, Rosin seems to think we’d all be better off putting blinders on that narrow our field of view, shutting out broader comparisons of how men and women are doing in the workforce overall. Here are a few inconvenient truths that Rosin’s tunnel vision misses: women are often excluded from higher-paying jobs; women are subtly and not-so-subtly pushed into lower-paying jobs that are often devalued precisely because they are done by women; and social expectations of women to do most of the unpaid caregiving work put together with the lack of paid family leave and other forms of workplace flexibility mean that women still face a wage penalty for not being the ideal, unencumbered worker.
Rosin is sick and tired of hearing about the 77-cent figure. We couldn’t agree more. But putting blinders on is not the answer. Contrary to what Rosin claims, using the 77-cent figure to describe the wage gap is absolutely crucial to encompassing the set of problems that need to be solved for that gap to close. Reducing the wage gap to a comparison of only what women and men make in the same job misses all of these other forms of inequality that need to be addressed.
Rather than making light of the wage gap, the better approach is to try to understand it and then invest in policies that would help close the gap – policies like updating pay and other employment discrimination laws; raising the minimum wage (which would amount to a huge pay raise for the 2/3 of minimum wage workers who are women); opening doors for women in traditionally male fields (which also happen to be higher paying); and updating outmoded workplace policies that penalize working parents).