The fact-checkers quickly pounced on President Barack Obama for saying that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. The data point, used as a rallying cry in last week's State of the Union address, is misleading, critics said.
Yet when it comes to sex and pay, it's these critics who are misleading.
The Daily Beast featured a particularly full-throated takedown titled "No, Women Don't Make Less Than Men" from Christina Hoff Sommers, a critic of the 20th century feminist movement and resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. Sommers says that if you compare a man and a woman with the same college major and in a similar job, women "only" earn about 5 cents less than men.
Sommers writes (with no self-awareness) the following sentence: "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." What could that "subtle hard-to-measure difference" be aside from institutional sexism. It's hard to say. Sommers goes on to claim that women are choosing low-paying work professions.
Sommers isn't the first to argue that women "choose" lower-paying work. Like others before her, she doesn't dive deeper into the economic and social circumstances that drive those choices.
The bottom line is: Women earn less than men any way you look at it (even Sommers concedes) and that gap is far from a choice or "subtle difference."
Women make up two-thirds of low-wage workers, but just 14.6 percent of the top earning positions at Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a research organization aimed at boosting women at work.
Here's how we got here:
High-paying, traditionally male-dominated fields, like engineering and computer science, tend to be hostile places for women. The lack of women in the tech industry and the rampant sexism in Silicon Valley is something that's been frequently agonized over.
The path away from those high-paying fields starts in school. Fewer women get into computer science and engineering because of patterns of sexism that begin in grade school. Just 0.3 percent of girls arrive at college intent on majoring in computer science, according to an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education from experts in the science and engineering fields. That's because before girls even get to college, they're hit with messages from the media that working with computers is the exclusive purview of male geeks, that it's boring and it doesn't help society. Those stereotypes are particularly hard to counter when schools don't enlighten girls about the value of picking a career in a technical field and when there are few female computer scientists and engineers for them to look up to when picking a career.
Fields that tend to be more attractive to women, like teaching, social work and other "caretaking" professions are typically lower paying -- in part because they're considered "women's work." Just consider the history of the secretary, which has been the top job for women since 1950. When secretaries first came into existence during the industrial revolution, the job was largely male-dominated. Once companies realized they could pay women less to do the same thing it became a field mostly full of women, according to CNNMoney. As "The End of Men" author Hanna Rosin muses in an August Slate piece criticizing the 77 cents on the dollar stat, "Is it that women are choosing lower-paying professions or that our country values women's professions less?"
A lot of women have to take breaks from working -- in part because of a lack of supportive public policies. Women who have children typically take breaks from their careers -- to have and raise children or care for older relatives -- this makes it harder for them to stay on track with their male peers and move up the career ladder.
Policies like paid family leave and subsidized child care could help reduce this so-called "mommy penalty." A 2012 study of California's paid family leave program found that the initiative may have boosted womens' incomes and hours at work by 9 percent. California's program is rare; the U.S. is the only industrialized nation without mandated paid maternity leave.
Even when women have and make "the choice" to do everything exactly the same as men they still come out behind. Controlling for things like educational attainment, number of hours worked and occupation, women make about 5 percent less than their male colleagues, according to a 2011 analysis by the St. Louis Federal Reserve. That amounts to about $35 a week, $1,750 a year or $52,500 over a 30 year career for a full-time worker. As women continue on in their careers that gap gets even wider, a study of MBA students from the University of Chicago found.
So, to sum up: Women make less than men. As Obama said, "That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment."
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