Election 2012: Why Pay Equity Should Be a Non Issue for Women Voters

Last week, during the second debate between President Obama and former Governor Romney, the president was asked by a 24-year-old pre-K teacher, Katherine Fenton, what he planned to do about "women making only 72% of what their male counterparts earn."  At the time, I wondered where she had gotten the figure, and if, as a pre-K teacher, she could possibly have had that experience herself.

The equal pay argument is full of holes. If it wasn't so politically charged, particularly for the gender that seems to be deciding the outcome of the election, I think it might be rebuffed by at least one of the candidates.

Yes, there is a pay gap, but it isn't that large, and much of it can be explained. Women are paid somewhat less not because they are women, but because of the nature of their work, their hours, and other habits. Unfortunately, some of the salary difference is due to supply and demand. Child care workers are paid less than some other lesser skilled workers because the demand is different, not because the workers are women.

At the debate, neither candidate directly answered the young woman's question. It strikes me that this may have been because there is no answer. The figure is incorrect. Pay equity is a complicated discussion, and not a huge problem for women in this election. In examining the data, what is apparent is that jobs, experience and effort are not part of the calculations behind the claims that such a wide gap in earnings exists. 

In fact, women in their 20s who do not have children, like Fenton, earn more than their male peers. However, they are more likely to cut back their hours after they bear children, giving the income advantage to men.

According to economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth, the 72 % figure compares earnings of full-time (35 or more hours) male and female employees, averaging fields with different pay scales, different educational backgrounds and occupations that may be more or less in demand. The gap is explained in part by differing numbers of hours worked.

On average, full-time women work fewer hours than men. According to the Labor Department, 55% of the workers logging more than 35 hours a week are men. In 2011, employed men worked on average 47 minutes longer than women on the days they worked. This difference is only partly explained by women's greater likelihood of working part-time. 

Even among full-time workers (35 or more hours per week), men worked 8.3 hours compared to 7.8 hours for women. When comparing men and women who work 40 hours per week, women make 87% of men's earnings, a much smaller variance than the 72% figure.

Some might argue that the hours gap between men and women might shrink if employers offered more policies, such as flexible hours, that benefitted families. It is hard to believe that employers would go out of their way to do so unless changing the hours gap affected their productivity or bottom line.  

Addressing these issues, Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute said, "We don't know if there is a way to design workplaces so that women would work more or men would work less or both. What we do know is that no one, anywhere, has yet figured out how to do it. Which means that for the foreseeable future, at least when it comes to income, women will remain the second sex."

Women staffers in the Obama White House generally earn about 18% less than men. (This figure has many of the same inaccuracies as the others, but is worth noting because of the employer.) The equal pay issue is multi-faceted. When the figures are quoted, the usual implication is that women are routinely paid less than men for the same job. What is actually true is that there are not as many women at the highest levels in the White House as there are men, and there is nothing wrong with that.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to male and female employees performing work requiring the same effort, skill and responsibility. What is implied by those who use the 72% figure is either that employers are routinely breaking the law, or that women should receive more for less.     

Census figures released September 12 of this year showed women's earnings were 77% of men's in 2011, virtually unchanged from the previous year. The figure was based on median earnings of all full-time, year-round workers. Men's earnings in 2011 were $48,202; women's were $37,118.  However, this figure does not account for educational difference, differences in number of hours worked, skill or responsibility.

Do women want more than equal pay for equal work?  Is it so politically incorrect to ask what it is that is being demanded? Given these statistics, it does not appear that there is much pay disparity, and much of it can be explained by other trends in the workplace

Furtchgott-Roth uses Yale Law Women, "a group that features some of the smartest people in the world," as an example. In 2012, they made a list of “Top Ten Law Firms,” in categories related to family friendliness, picking firms with part-time and flex-time work, and generous parental-leave policies.

"These are women who have the credentials to aim for the C-Suite at major corporations, but some are already planning for part-time and flex-time," she claims. No offense to the choices, but if the women don't make it to the top, it is likewise not fair for them to claim "discrimination," since they planned from the beginning to work fewer hours.

A gender income inequality map published last week in Slate depicts the worst states for women, pay-wise, based on 2010 Census Bureau American Community Survey.  By each state and by county, it shows the ratio between the median income of women and men for those employed in 2010 in shades of pink.

Again, the problem is that education level, work hours, and career are not considered.  Apples should be compared to apples, not oranges. 

The evidence suggests that this is a non-problem. Should women receive equal pay for equal work? Of course. There is a law to enforce that. 

Should women who choose to work fewer hours or have more job flexibility because they have children receive the same pay as men who work more hours and don't ask for that flexibility? Not in my book. If women are annoyed that they bear most of the childcare responsibilities, that is not the fault of the employer, and the federal government most certainly does not belong in that argument. 

It makes sense that we set aside the equal pay argument. Far more important to families everywhere is employment. 7.0 % of women are unemployed, compared to 7.3 % of men and 7.8% overall. That is a sad statistic that needs to change.