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Don’t Believe Everything You Read: Five “Facts” in Celebration of World Statistics Day

The U.N. has designated today as World Statistics Day which celebrates, in part, how good social policy is informed by well-reasoned, comprehensible statistics. At NWLC we use statistics to examine the effects of policies, make recommendations to policymakers, and help keep the public informed.

But while statistics are useful, they can also be very misleading if not analyzed with a critical eye. In celebration of the first World Statistics Day I wanted to share a few of the most misleading “facts” that have been reported by the media about women:

  • The title of a September 2010 article on The Today Show website read: “Gen Y women outearning their peers
    • While the title seems to indicate that the wage gap between men and women has closed across the board, if you read the whole article you will see that the study only examines unmarried, childless, women living in cities who are 22-30. Not exactly all of Gen Y women! Moreover, this study focuses on certain factors that increase women’s earning relative to men (youth, childlessness) while ignoring the fact that women earn less than men in every occupation and at every educational level.
  • British paper The Telegraph published an article in the summer of 2009 titled: “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists
    • This article, which placed the blame for rape squarely on the shoulders of the victim, was shown to be a total mischaracterization of the data and was later removed. The author of the study stated in an interview that the way women dressed actually had no significant effect on the likelihood that they were raped.
  • From The Boston Globe in the spring of 2008: “The freedom to say ‘no’ Why aren’t there more women in science and engineering? Controversial new research suggests: They just aren’t interested
    • Apparently The Boston Globe does not think medicine is a science since, according to the fact checking organization STATS, “to make the claim that women are just not interested in science stick, the Globe excluded medicine and biology, where the gender gap has disappeared over the past 50 years. In fact, 60 percent of biology degrees now go to women, and recent data show 49.5 percent of first-year medical students in 2004 were women, and that they formed a majority of applicants.”
  • A 2003 New York Times article “An Opt Out Revolution” claims that “women are rejecting the workplace” in favor of parenthood.
    • The bulk of the support for author’s argument comes from interviews with a handful of women who are very similar to each other (white, highly educated) but do not represent an accurate picture of America. Moreover, this argument has been debunked in multiple places. For example, The Washington Post reported that stay-at-home moms are typically less-educated, younger women rather than Ivy Leaguers at the peak of their career and the Columbia Journalism Review found that, “Census numbers show no increase in mothers exiting the work force.”
  • And finally an old favorite: In 1986 Newsweek claimed that once a woman is over 40 she is “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to get married.
    • As demonstrated by the fact checkers at Snopes.com, this fact is wrong for many reasons: First, Newsweek reported that a woman 40 and over had a 2.6% probability of getting married — however, the probability of getting killed by a terrorist in 1986 was more than one in 1.5 million. Second, the study only focused on college educated women, not all women. Third, a Census report from a similar time found that women in this group had a 23% chance of marriage.

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.