WOMEN
04/12/2016 08:16 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2016

No, The Gender Pay Gap Isn't A Myth -- And Here's Why

On Equal Pay Day, a reminder: The gender wage gap is very real.
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One of the most common arguments made about the gender pay gap is that it simply doesn't exist. Take this Wall Street Journal op-ed lamenting the "The 'Wage Gap' Myth That Won't Die," or this one from CBS Money Watch that asserts "The Gender Pay Gap Is A Complete Myth." Read the comments in just about any article on the subject. Pay gap deniers abound. 

But dismissing the pay gap as a myth created by rabid feminists who can't wrap their brains around the subtleties of economics is a crappy thing to do, and it's also plain inaccurate. So on Equal Pay Day -- a day that marks how far into 2016 women have to work to catch up with what men earned last year -- we explore why pay equity simply has not been achieved, and why that cannot be dismissed.

The "79 cents" claim isn't wrong. 

Pay gap deniers love to dispute the claim that, on average, women in the United States make 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, arguing that it is a misleading oversimplification. "Few experts dispute that there is a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women -- such as women tending to leave the workforce when they have children -- make it difficult to make simple comparisons. That’s what’s so facile about repeatedly citing '78 cents,'" argued a 2015 Washington Post article. (Since that piece came out, the figure increased from 78 to 79 cents.)

But the argument that "life choices" made by women are the real reason behind the gap is, in itself, an absurd oversimplification. Sure, many women choose to stay home or cut back their hours after having children. But many others don't opt out. They're forced out because they cannot afford child care, or find a full-time job that affords them any kind of flexibility. And, culturally, Americans remain ambivalent about women working outside of the home. A little more than 30 percent of Americans still believe women should stay home full-time to care for young children. These biases, which play out both in the workplace and outside of it, affect how much "choice" some women feel they actually have, and speaks to the types of judgments women face for making said choices. Plus, women face a well-known "motherhood penalty." They're less likely to be hired for jobs once they have children -- unlike men, whose prospects improve

And P.S.: Although that same Washington Post piece attempts to downplay the pay gap by pointing out that, really, women who don't get married earn closer to 95 cents for every dollar a man makes, that shouldn't make anyone feel better. It implies that for women to earn equal wages, they simply shouldn't get hitched, and ignores the simple fact that FIVE CENTS IS STILL A GAP. 

It's all way, way worse for women of color.

In 2014, black women in the U.S. earned 63 percent of what white men in this country were paid. Latina women earned 54 percent. The National Women's Law Center estimates that black women lose more than $877,000 over the course of a 40-year career as a result of the pay gap. Latina women lose more than $1,000,000. Women of color are also less likely to have access to things like paid sick and family leave and flexible work schedules, all of which compound the systemic economic hurdles they face. 

When women enter traditionally male fields, pay drops.

Another beloved means of dismissing the gender pay gap is to point out that women tend to work in lower-paying (i.e., traditionally "female") fields, like teaching, nursing and social work. And yes, that's true. "Women, as a whole, continue to work in lower-paying occupations than men do," Pew says

But research has shown that even when women enter traditionally "male" fields, they make less. In fact, research looking at pay changes over decades has shown that when more women enter a traditionally male field, pay within that field begins to decline. As The New York Times reported, when more women began working in parks or running camps, for example, median hourly wages declined by 57 percentage points. Same goes for fields like design, housekeeping and biology. Conversely, when more men enter a traditionally female field, wages go up

“It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance,” a researcher told The New York Times. “It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less.”

Just ask the U.S. Women's Soccer Team.

This stuff isn’t just about statistics and averages. There are many concrete and specific examples of the ways in which the pay gap is a real force in women’s lives today. (See hospital doctorsJennifer Lawrence and even Buffer, a company obsessed with eliminating the pay gap that took a hard look at itself and found...a pay gap.) But while it’s certainly disheartening that five members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team had to file suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation to push for the same pay and bonuses as their male counterparts, it also makes for kind of a perfect, high-profile example of the pay gap in action just in time for Equal Pay Day.

The team earned roughly a quarter of what their male counterparts did last year, even though they generated more in revenue than the men’s team. Oh, and they also won the 2015 World Cup.

The factors that go into the gender pay gap are complex and wide-ranging, but according to a new congressional report, even when those factors are controlled for, up to 40 percent of the pay gap in the United States may be attributed to flat-out discrimination. 

“If I were a male soccer player who won a World Cup for the United States, my bonus would be $390,000,” wrote Carli Lloyd, co-captain of the national team and FIFA’s 2015 World Player of The Year, in an essay for The New York Times. “Because I am a female soccer player, the bonus I got for our World Cup victory last summer was $75,000.”

“This isn’t about a money grab,” she continued. “It’s about doing the right thing, the fair thing. It’s about treating people the way they deserve to be treated, no matter their gender.” Damn right. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the discrepancy in the previous year’s revenue earned by the U.S. men and women’s teams, respectively, as $20 million. Politifact reports that the difference is closer to $5.8 million.

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