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National Equal Pay Day 2013: Does It Promote a Gender Wage Gap "Myth"?

This week marks the third anniversary of “National Equal Pay Day,” a day introduced by presidential proclamation in 2011 in an effort to “address longstanding inequity that keeps women from earning a living equal to their efforts.” But leading conservative women’s group, Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), calls President Obama's bluff, claiming such efforts mischaracterize the realities of women's choices in the modern American workforce, in a recent video.

While taking somewhat distracting jabs at President Obama's efforts to make gender in the workforce an issue of national priority, the IWF’s criticisms do contribute useful commentary on how commonly invoked gender and wage statistics tend to lack precision. 

On one hand, the facts are clear. Women, on average, make only 77% of what men make in the U.S. This oft-cited figure (which compares the salaries of all American men and women with full-time jobs) is jarring, considering women make up about half of America’s workforce and yet earn, on average, 23% less than their male counterparts. Women’s wages have been an issue of national concern since the 1963 Equal Pay Act, and, most recently, one of legislative concerns in the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And yet, at the current pace of progress, D.C.’s Institute for Women’s Policy Research reported this month that the wage gap for women should be “expected to close in 2057.”

The issue becomes complicated, however, when one accounts for the choices women make. The fact remains that, while working American women have more college degrees than men, they tend to gravitate towards majors such as sociology (68% female, median income $40,000), as opposed to the more male-dominated fields like economics (66% male, median income $70,00). Women also tend to work less than men. And this is exactly the point the IWF is trying to highlight in recent criticisms that “equal pay” initiatives inaccurately capture issues of gender, choice, and opportunity in modern day America. Too many rules and regulations trying to overcompensate for a supposed “gap,” the IWF argues, misunderstand the issue and will harm businesses and women’s goals in the workforce.

This idea that choice is not properly being factored into the statistical equation has supported growing claims that the gender wage gap is a “myth” time and time again. The president’s own initiative has even been accused of hypocrisy, as the Daily Caller reported women working at the White House make 13% less than their male counterparts

Ultimately, the issue is simply not one that can be written off as “myth” or “fact.” These are useless rhetorical tools that don’t get at the heart of the issue of gender and wage rates in America. The fact is that American women are generally paid less then men, and the question remains as to what degree these salaries reflect natural gaps in women's choices and what, if anything, should be done about it. As we consider complex questions about “having it all” and “leaning in,” we should also more directly consider the range of difficult questions about gender that remain poorly understood.  

These include tackling tough questions with reinvigorated efforts that seek to understand why, for example, women fall behind in fields such as math and science and how maternal roles may or may not impact working hours. And we should examine why the U.S. gender pay gap is highest in certain fields such as real estate, insurance sales, and marketing, and what women have done to rise above the gap in certain fields. We should also continue to follow how the U.S. compares with worldwide gender wage gap figures, where gaps are lowest in places like Belgium and New Zealand and highest in Japan.

“National Equal Pay Day” serves as a useful reminder that gender in the workforce is an issue deserving close, careful analysis. Broad based efforts to address the issue would be better served, however, not by holidays and regurgitating shiny statistics, but by fine-tuned efforts to capture the most accurate statistics possible that account for choice, while probing the range of tough questions a holistic understanding of the issue cannot ignore. 

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