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The Gender Wage Gap Myth

February 3rd 2014

Green Jobs

President Obama repeated the spurious gender wage gap statistic in his State of the Union address. “Today,” he said, “women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.”

What is wrong and embarrassing is the President of the United States reciting a massively discredited factoid. The 23-cent gender pay gap is simply the difference between the average earnings of all men and women working full-time. It does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. When all these relevant factors are taken into consideration, the wage gap narrows to about five cents. And no one knows if the five cents is a result of discrimination or some other subtle, hard-to-measure difference between male and female workers. In its fact-checking column on the State of the Union, the Washington Post included the president’s mention of the wage gap in its list of dubious claims. “There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women… make it difficult to make simple comparisons.”

Consider, for example, how men and women differ in their college majors. Here is a list (PDF) of the ten most remunerative majors compiled by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Men overwhelmingly outnumber women in all but one of them:

     1. Petroleum Engineering: 87% male
     2. Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration: 48% male
     3. Mathematics and Computer Science: 67% male
     4. Aerospace Engineering: 88% male
     5. Chemical Engineering: 72% male
     6. Electrical Engineering: 89% male
     7. Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering: 97% male
     8. Mechanical Engineering: 90% male
      9. Metallurgical Engineering: 83% male
     10. Mining and Mineral Engineering: 90% male

And here are the 10 least remunerative majors—where women prevail in nine out of ten:

     1. Counseling Psychology: 74% female
     2. Early Childhood Education: 97% female
     3. Theology and Religious Vocations: 34% female
     4. Human Services and Community Organization: 81% female
     5. Social Work: 88% female
     6. Drama and Theater Arts: 60% female
     7. Studio Arts: 66% female
     8. Communication Disorders Sciences and Services: 94% female
     9. Visual and Performing Arts: 77% female
     10. Health and Medical Preparatory Programs: 55% female

Much of the wage gap can be explained away by simply taking account of college majors. Early childhood educators and social workers can expect to earn around $36,000 and $39,000, respectively. By contrast, petroleum engineering and metallurgy degrees promise median earnings of $120,000 and $80,000. Not many aspiring early childhood educators would change course once they learn they can earn more in metallurgy or mining. The sexes, taken as a group, are somewhat different. Women, far more than men, appear to be drawn to jobs in the caring professions; and men are more likely to turn up in people-free zones. In the pursuit of happiness, men and women appear to take different paths.

But here is the mystery. These and other differences in employment preferences and work-family choices have been widely studied in recent years and are now documented in a mountain of solid empirical research. By now the President and his staff must be aware that the wage gap statistic has been demolished. This is not the first time the Washington Post has alerted the White House to the error. Why continue to use it? One possibility is that they have been taken in by the apologetics of groups like the National Organization for Women and the American Association of University Women. In its 2007 Behind the Pay Gap report, the AAUW admits that most of the gap in earnings is explained by choices. But this admission is qualified: “Women’s personal choices are similarly fraught with inequities,” says the AAUW. It speaks of women being “pigeonholed” into “pink-collar” jobs in health and education. According to NOW, powerful sexist stereotypes “steer” women and men “toward different education, training, and career paths.”

Have these groups noticed that American women are now among the most educated, autonomous, opportunity-rich women in history? Why not respect their choices? For the past few decades, untold millions of state and federal dollars have been devoted to recruiting young women into engineering and computer technology. It hasn’t worked. The percent of degrees awarded to women in fields like computer science and engineering has either stagnated or significantly decreased since 2000. (According to Department of Education data, in 2000, women earned 19 percent of engineering BA’s, and 28 percent in computer science; by 2011, only 17 percent of engineering degrees were awarded to females, and the percent of female computer science degrees had dropped to 18.) All evidence suggests that though young women have the talent for engineering and computer science, their interest tends to lie elsewhere. To say that these women remain helplessly in thrall to sexist stereotypes, and manipulated into life choices by forces beyond their control, is divorced from reality—and demeaning to boot. If a woman wants to be a teacher rather than a miner, or a veterinarian rather than a petroleum engineer, more power to her.

The White House should stop using women’s choices to construct a false claim about social inequality that is poisoning our gender debates. And if the President is truly persuaded that statistical pay disparities indicate invidious discrimination, then he should address the wage gap in his own backyard. Female staff at the White House earn 88 cents on the dollar compared to men. Is there a White House war on women?

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Her book "Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History — and Why It Matters" will be published in 2013 by AEI Press.


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