The Femo: Towards a more accurate understanding of the pay gap

Virginia Davis

by Olivia Conetta

Between Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” and President Obama’s focus on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the pay gap between men and women has become a big talking point in the 2012 election. An oft-cited figure that quantifies the gender gap in pay is that women make 77 cents for each dollar a man makes for working full-time each year. But how much does this figure reflect employer discrimination against women?

Part of the pay gap is a result of the different career choices women and men make. Men tend to flock in greater numbers to high-paying fields such as engineering; women cluster in lower-paying fields like education. And, as Princeton Professor of Politics and International Affairs Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in a controversial piece in the Atlantic this summer, it’s especially difficult for women to maintain a work-family balance. Over 70 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 44 took maternity leave for their last pregnancy between 2006 and 2008, according to a 2011 measure by the Department of Health and Human Services.

For political reasons, President Obama’s remarks on the gender gap in Wednesday’s town hall debate didn’t touch upon other explanations for the pay gap. “We’ve also got to make sure that in every walk of life we do not tolerate discrimination,” he said, after explaining that his grandmother worked the same job as a man but was paid less for it.

The president is certainly right that discrimination against women should not be tolerated, but there’s more to the pay gap than discrimination. Francine Blau, a labor economist at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, acknowledges that the pay gap “could be due to some factors that employers know about that reflect productivity but are not possible for us to include in our analysis” as well as women’s career choices and long-term working patterns.

Don’t get me wrong — women should be paid the same for doing the same job and being just as productive as a man is at that job, and men who take time off to raise children should face the same pay a woman would upon returning to the workplace. Ending workplace discrimination is a noble and worthy goal. But talking about an absolute pay gap as if it’s 100 percent attributable to discrimination is incorrect and ignores the numerous hard-to-isolate, interrelated factors that also contribute to a pay gap.


photo of Virginia Davis in 1942 available in the Library of Congress