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The Gender Pay Gap: Not as Bad as You Think

The Gender Pay Gap: Not as Bad as You Think

Jul 24 2012
The major factor that recent reports fail to account for.

When you hear that women make "77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts," what comes to mind—besides anger? Probably you assume that means that, for every male salesman making $100,000, a woman doing the same job is making $77,000—a discrepancy owing to sex-based discrimination by men against women.

Believe it or not, that's not what the data show.

That 77-cent figure comes from a report on educational attainment, issued earlier this year by the U.S. Census Bureau, which shows that median monthly earnings in 2009, for those 18 and older, were $2,917 for women, $3,750 for men. Divide $2,917 by $3,750 and you get .7778—the basis of the figure. (As a statistics refresher, median means the midpoint of the data set, not the average.)

However, a separate report comparing women's to men's salaries for the same job shows the median woman earning 82 cents for the median man. Half the women in the report, whose work accounted for 61 different jobs, were making better than 82 cents on their male counterpart's dollar. More than a third made between 61 and 81 cents on the dollar. Several of the jobs with the worst pay gaps were managerial in nature or required higher education, yet the educational attainment report shows that women with advanced degrees in some fields make 90 percent of what men do. Overall, both reports show the pay gap varies significantly.

Does this mean employers in some types of work are more discriminatory than others? That's possible, but it's hard to conclude that the only factor is gender discrimination. For one thing, neither report distinguishes similar jobs in for-profit settings from those in nonprofit organizations, which almost always offer lower salaries for similar work, but may also entail less-demanding hours and better work-life balance. The reports are also limited to income, which means they don't factor in the kind of benefits offered and other factors that might make lower-paying jobs more attractive.

After poring over the numbers for a while, I was curious to see how my earnings compared, given that I hold a master's degree in religious studies and work for a nonprofit. According to the education report's chart showing average pretax earnings, based on education level (table 5, which doesn't include sex), I made less per month than both my master's degree- and bachelor's degree-holding peers. But is that because I'm a woman or a nonprofit employee? On the other hand, when compared to peers with degrees in liberal arts, I was earning more than both the median man and woman at both the bachelor's and advanced-degree levels.

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The Gender Pay Gap: Not as Bad as You Think