The White House Explains Why It Repeats the Equal-Pay Factoid: It’s a Noble Lie

Why does the White House repeatedly trot out the claim that women make 77 cents on the dollar men do for performing the same work, when it’s well known to be incredibly misleading or straight-up false? (The difference is almost entirely explained by differences in occupational choices, skills, and experience.)

There are a lot of very smart economists and statisticians in the White House, and the president is supposedly a bit of a wonk himself — surely he knows how misleading it is. They have fact-checkers for this stuff — Keith Hennessy, a Bush economic adviser, once usefully recounted the process they went through for claims in the president’s speeches — why is the president letting this through?

MSNBC’s Irin Carmon asked this of Betsey Stevenson, an accomplished University of Michigan labor economist who’s now on the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, and here’s what she said (note what’s in bold):

Carmon: Every time the president comes out and says, women should have equal pay for equal work, you have folks, including economists, come out and say, that’s a misleading number, that’s not for the same job, that’s year-round full-time wages, and a big part of it is women’s choices. What’s your response to that, and what’s a good way to understand these numbers?

Stevenson: When people come out and say that’s not a fair number, well, what really is a fair number? You brought up “women’s choices.” Well, some women’s choices come about because they’re being discriminated against. Some of women’s choices come because they experience sexism. Some of women’s choices come because they are disproportionately balancing the needs of work and family. Which of these choices should we consider legitimate choices, and which of them should we consider things that we have a societal obligation to try to mitigate, to alleviate some of these constraints so that they can make different choices? A lot of people will say things like, let’s control for occupational choices. But the research is showing us that women are choosing occupations which penalize them the least for taking time out of work.

If there was less discrimination, if there was more flexibility in work, you wouldn’t see women necessarily choosing the same occupations. So why should I take the wage gap holding occupation constant? If we change society, we reduce discrimination, we’re not going to hold occupational choice constant – women are going to choose different occupations.

I agree that the 77 cents on the dollar is not all due to discrimination. No one is trying to say that it is. But you have to point to some number in order for people to understand the facts. And what it represents is the fact that women on average are put in situations every day that for a variety of reasons mean they earn less. Much of what we need to do to close that gap is to change the constraints that women face. And there are things we haven’t tried.

To some extent, this is understandable, though it’s unfortunate that the president is comfortable making such a misleading claim to draw attention to an issue (however important). To take Hennessy at his word, that’s not something the Bush White House would have done.

But there are further problems: Stevenson’s right that people rarely say “women earn 23 percent less than men all because of discrimination.” But the president — and Democrats at all levels — use the number to argue for anti-discrimination legislation. If you’re insisting that it must be easier for women to pursue discrimination claims, you’d better have a mighty good case that legally actionable discrimination is explaining the problem (and also that more discrimination legislation will help prevent it, but that’s a separate issue). Stevenson merely claims that subtle discrimination might be pushing women to make different, less-lucrative choices, which isn’t something that can reasonably be solved through individual lawsuits.

This isn’t to say Stevenson is entirely wrong about discrimination and choices: Obviously, some women who would make great economists or politicians or financiers or whatever are driven away from those paths by sexism, in particular subtly sexist atmospheres and institutions. But whether that’s an acceptable cultural reality, a cultural problem, or a tort that needs to be federally actionable isn’t obvious. The 77 cents on the dollar claim isn’t going to clear that up — especially when, and here I probably differ from Stevenson — some of the divergence in men’s and women’s occupational choices are not due to societal constraints, but fundamental differences.

Thanks to Justin Wolfers, a Michigan economist who happens to be Stevenson’s husband, for pointing to the interview. (Follow him on Twitter for superb analysis of the BLS jobs numbers every month, and other smart things.)

Patrick Brennan — Patrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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