A response to “The Pay Gap Myth and Other Lies That Won’t Die”

9 minute read


I dated (and very much liked!) someone who made similar points as in this National Review article. It wrenched my heart to hear his “arguments” then as it does to read them now. But this time, I’m not in an emotionally charged conversation, and I can respond:

We expect to hear a lot of lies during an election year, and this year is certainly no exception. What is surprising is how old some of these lies are, and how often they have been shown to be lies, years ago or even decades ago. One of the oldest of these lies is that women are paid less than men for doing the same work. Like many other politically successful lies, it contains just enough of the truth to fool the gullible.

Okay, already you’re insulting and alienating people who don’t agree with you. I see this in every conservative news source I’ve started following (Breitbart and National Review, though I imagine Facebook’s algorithm gives me some other ones sometimes). You can’t argue against polarizing media and call everyone who doesn’t agree with you liars in the same breath. (Thankfully, the person I dated came into the conversation with a much more open mind. It’s amazing how important tone is for outcome.)

Women as a group do get paid less than men as a group. But not for doing the same work. Women average fewer annual hours of work than men. They work continuously for fewer years than men, since only women get pregnant, and most women are not prepared to instantly dump the baby on somebody else to raise.

Word. Women are the ones who get pregnant and there are logistical consequences. Can we talk about confounders? Societal structures that lead to women working for fewer years? How about that unpaid labor women disproportionately do at home? If I know I have dinner waiting for me at home (because my wife came home early from her job to cook it), I’ll probably work late.

Can we talk about the implications of women working fewer years than men? About the (not-really-choices) choices that women make when they abandon or sidetrack their careers for their young children? Can we talk about ways that we could restructure our society to support women so that they wouldn’t have to make that choice, or so that the choice would feel less like choosing the lesser of two evils? So that both the women who want to stay home with their kids and those who want to continue pursuing their careers can do so without judgement and without needing to have super-human powers? Can we talk about ways we could give space for and even encourage men to share in that beautiful work of creating a family?

Being a mother is not an incidental sideline, and being a single mother can be a major restriction on how much time can be put into a job, either in a year or over the years.

Agreed. See above on societal structures. Can we talk about whether it’s right and just that being a single mother can restrict her opportunities?

People like Hillary Clinton can simply grab a statistic about male–female income differences and run with it, since her purpose is not truth but votes. The real question, however, is whether, or to what extent, those income differences are due to employers paying women and men different wages for doing the very same jobs, for the very same amount of time.

  1. Don’t even talk about about Hillary Clinton’s experience with sexism. Just don’t. (Yes, I’m mad.)
  2. Great point - that’s a really important question! And there are many others. See above (and below).

As far back as 1971, single women in their thirties who had worked continuously since high school earned slightly more than men of the same description. As far back as 1969, academic women who had never married earned more than academic men who had never married.

It’s 2017. Things can change for the better and they can change for the worse. For example, programming used to be a female-dominated field. What a world! What an unexpected twist!! (Because men are biologically better at programming, right?)

Also, can we talk about your sample populations here? Academic men and women who had never married? How many people in National Review’s readership fit that bill? In other words, can we talk about who we’re talking about?

People who are looking for grievances are not going to be stopped by facts, especially if they are in politics. But where are our media pundits and our academic scholars? Mostly silent, either out of fear of being denounced as anti-women or because they have chosen to take sides rather than convey facts.

Can we talk about, like, all the people who aren’t silent on this? Maybe even some women? I can call up probably any of my working female friends and they’ll be happy to tell you their salary and their male colleagues’ salaries. And honestly, I think you and I will both be surprised - I’ll realize that I’ve been more pessimistic than reality calls for, and you’ll realize that things are different now than they were then.

Can we talk about other reasons people might not be on your side?

It is much the same story with black–white comparisons. More than 40 years ago, my own research turned up statistics on black and white professors who had Ph.D.s from equally high-ranked institutions in the same fields, and who had published the same number of articles.

When all these things were held constant, the black professors earned somewhat more than white professors. But, since all these things are not the same among black and white professors in general, there is a racial gap in pay that allows some to loudly denounce racial discrimination among academics.

Can we just talk about this? Like just this.

  1. Once you hold all these things constant, you’ve automatically selected for some badass black professors, because if they’re at the same level as a white professor then you can bet they’ve probably worked infinitely harder than that white professor. I would hope that they get paid as much? No, I would hope that they get paid according to their value, which is honestly probably way more than their white colleagues.
  2. Can we talk about why those things are not the same, why the racial pay gap persists? Also can we talk about how it seems like that’s okay with you? How that doesn’t seem to be convincing enough evidence of racial discrimination? How discrimination doesn’t have to be explicit, and how calling out discrimination doesn’t mean I’m calling you a racist? (Though, tbh, we’re all racist. But that’s for another conversation. Baby steps.) How there are so many ways for discrimination to happen? The assumption that denouncing racial discrimination is a bad thing, and ways in which it might be a good thing?
  3. And I’m really impressed there were enough black professors then to do a robust statistical analysis - what’s your sample size? What fields were these professors in? I too am interested in cutting through the rhetoric and getting to the facts. I’m also an engineer, and I love numbers! Can we talk about numbers?

Those who wish to check out my statistics can get a copy of my 1975 monograph, Affirmative Action Reconsidered. It has not been updated because not all the same statistics will be released now. This is not unusual. Statistics that might undermine some other popular conclusions — whether on affirmative action, global warming, or whatever — have been kept under wraps when other researchers tried to get them.

Can we talk about other ways to get this data and other reasons it may not be available? Can we talk about not giving up when something is hard, about rolling your sleeves up to support your argument all the way to its conclusion?

Also can we talk about the year that we are currently living in, and how different society is now than it was when this was written? Can we talk about how humans learn and change and respond to new information and how that’s not only totally okay, it is beautiful?

Too many people in the media and in academia abandon their roles as conduits for facts and take on the role of filterers of facts to promote social and political agendas.

Can we pause for a moment of self-reflection?

There are many reasons why old lies, refuted long ago, are still heard every election year, and in all too many other years.

Can we stop calling my lived experiences a myth? It really hurts. It makes me feel invisible, undervalued, and unheard – and I know you can relate to that feeling.