The Radicalism of ‘Equal Pay Day’

by Jason Richwine

Equal Pay Day, which publicizes the 80 cents earned by women for every dollar earned by men, lost some steam once critics began pointing out that even its promoters pay their female employees less than their male employees. Perhaps most effective was Mark Perry’s calculation in 2013 that the Obama White House — which had heavily publicized the gender pay gap as part of its “Republican war on women” messaging — paid women 88 percent of what men earned. Last week, the Free Beacon’s Brent Scher noted that women on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s staff received 71 percent of what male staffers were paid.

The reason these stories are so effective, of course, is that they compel equal-pay advocates to acknowledge a hypocrisy either way. On one hand, if they stand by the validity of “80 cents for every dollar,” then they admit they are as guilty of discrimination as everyone else, and they should clean up their own act before shaming others. If, on the other hand, they defend their pay policies on the (accurate) grounds that the gender gap is caused mainly by differences in job duties, skills, and life choices, then they are admitting that “80 cents for every dollar” is a misleading statistic.

Humorously, when Snopes did a “fact check” of the claim that Elizabeth Warren underpays her female staffers, that second kind of hypocrisy went completely over the fact-checker’s head. Snopes enlightens us with this statement:

In order to fairly assess gender pay parity, researchers must take into account variables such as experience and education levels, as well as staff turnover and the reality that people with different job titles earn different salaries — factors not considered in the Free Beacon‘s analysis.

Well, yes, that’s the whole point! Snopes goes on to cite an expert on congressional pay:

The methodology used in the analysis is flawed; they combined positions and people at different levels in the office. It’s the equivalent of comparing a female astronaut to a male welder to conclude some people get paid more than others. If you compare a staff assistant to a chief of staff, it’s not a fair comparison.

Really! Who knew?

All kidding aside, there does exist an intellectually consistent response to the hypocrisy charge, but there is a reason that politicians rarely invoke it. That response, articulated here by the Economic Policy Institute, is that the pay gap may reflect real skill differences, but the country’s patriarchal culture pushes young women into choices that generate at least part of the skill gap in the first place. Under that view, individual employers (such as Elizabeth Warren) are not necessarily guilty of discrimination, but the raw wage gap is still relevant because it reflects our society’s failure to help women resemble men in every earnings-related respect.

Here we get into value judgments. One woman’s “home responsibilities that impede her capacity to work the long hours of demanding professions” (EPI’s words) are another woman’s treasured time with her children. Schools “steering her away from science and technology” might be biased against a particular woman, or they might be providing valuable advice based on her skills and interests. For the raw wage gap to be a meaningful measure of injustice, we would need to ignore any natural differences between the sexes that might lead to different life choices, and to condemn any culture that encourages or even tolerates such choices. This is not a perspective likely to be shared by the general public, but it is part of the intellectual foundation of Equal Pay Day.

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