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Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Gender Pay Gap: Fact or Fiction?

Lilly Ledbetter, an Alabama Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. worker in Washington in 2009. The president signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act allowing women to sue retroactively for pay and other workplace discrimination. (AP)

Are women paid less than men for equal work? That question was the subject of a heated argument on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. CNN contributor and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos repeatedly interrupted MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow as she tried to give an example of the type of policymaking that affects women.

Castellanos took issue with Maddow’s statement that women make 77 cents on the dollar for every dollar men make. Castellanos calls it an “old and discredited liberal myth” that women are paid less than men for equal work, saying the discrepancy stems from women taking different jobs and working fewer hours.

The Real Wage Gap

But CNN’s Lisa Sylvester found that even if you control for the hours worked, men make more than women — though the gap narrows to a five cent difference.

And Cornell economist Linda Barrington agrees. She told Here & Now‘s Robin Young that when men and women are doing the same job, with the same level of experience, education and work hours, women are paid about five percent less than men.

“It is a big gap and I think no one would say ‘I don’t want a five percent raise if it were offered,” she said.

But it is more complicated than that, especially when you get into what causes the five percent gap.

“Where the argument comes… is whether that last five percent is discrimination or is it that there are other things that we haven’t been able to control for that really explain the gap?” she said.

Barrington says one such factor that could influence women’s pay is the fact that they are less likely than men to  negotiate for higher starting salaries.

“There is evidence that men are much more likely… to negotiate for that first salary and that first salary gets compounded with every raise thereafter,” she said.

Is There Discrimination?

Barrington says that whether or not the five percent pay gap is a result of discrimination, there can also be discrimination taking place in other ways — even involving some of the factors, like education level and working hours — that studies control for.

For instance, she points to the fact that women are over 95 percent of speech pathologists and only 4.3 percent of air craft pilots and flight engineers.

“Yes that was a choice, but there’s social pressure and some discrimination that tracks women into certain jobs. So once you control for those jobs it doesn’t mean there’s no discrimination, it just means once those women become flight engineers, now how does their pay differ from men.”


There are other small factors that are hard to show statistically or in a court of law, says Barrington.  She says if women have fewer mentors at work, that could affect their pay in the long run.

She also cites an anecdote from graduate school. She says a male classmate told her in a study session that the professor would emphasize certain topics. When she asked the student how he knew, he said that the professor told him in a pick-up basketball game.

“That was a pickup basketball game with all male classmates and all male faculty. That kind of thing plays out in the long run, Barrington said.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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