The Campaign Spot

Don’t Look at the Details in Obama’s Campaign Ads!

One of President Obama’s new television ads laments that women earn 77 cents on the dollar for the same work as men*, and cites that statistic to Census Bureau figures for 2010.

The ad then goes on to say how wonderful it was that the first law Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Act, “to help ensure that women are paid the same as men for doing the exact same work.”

So if you’re using 2010 figures to illustrate a problem that your January 2009 act was intended to solve . . . it wasn’t much of a solution, now was it?

* As PolitiFact points out, the Obama ad misstates the statistic by contending that it’s for the same work.

The 77-cent figure compares all male and female workers, regardless of their occupation. Whether due to a historical legacy of discrimination or because of personal choice, women and men are disproportionately represented in certain jobs. For instance, women dominate the ranks of receptionists, nurses, and elementary and middle-school teachers, among other fields. Men are disproportionately truck drivers, managers and computer software engineers.

“If more men tend to be employed in occupations that pay higher wages both to men and women, then men may enjoy an overall earnings advantage even if all women in each occupation receive exactly the same hourly pay as the men who are employed in the occupation,” said Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution.

Indeed, if you look at men and women working in the same professions, the pay gap is much smaller (though for most professions, it doesn’t disappear entirely). For computer programmers, for instance, women earn 95 cents for every dollar a man earns. For cashiers it’s 92 cents. For cooks and customer service representatives, it’s 95 cents.

And then there’s the little factor of time spent on the job:

The other complicating factor involves seniority on the job. Men have typically held their jobs longer than women in the same position. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men in 2010 who were between 45 and 54 years old had a median job tenure of 8.5 years, compared to 7.1 years for women in the same age group.

“Women have shorter job tenures than men because they have more work interruptions than men, usually because they have children and assume heavy responsibility for rearing those children,” Burtless said. Improving access to child care or offering stronger protections for workers who leave the workforce temporarily to raise children, as some other advanced industrialized nations do, would probably decrease the wage gap, Burtless said.

The Lilly Ledbetter Act: It didn’t really change things, but it tried hard and sounded like it would, and isn’t that what’s most important?


The Latest