President Obama earned two Pinnochios from the Washington Post this week for using the oft-cited but misleading statistic that women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. The issue is a favorite for U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who gave the high-five heard ‘round the country at this year’s State of the Union address when President Obama brought up the wage gap.
President Obama and Gov. Malloy both spent “Equal Pay Day” — marking the end of the extra 98 days a woman would have to work to make the same amount a man makes in a single year — by talking up women’s issues to their supporters.
But the premise of Equal Pay Day is false. A woman does not have to work an extra 98 days to earn the same amount as a man, all other things being equal. The 23 percent gap comes from a straight reading of census data, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Women are more likely to work fewer hours, to work in industries that pay less, to work part-time and to take time away from their careers for family.
Equal Pay Day is more about politics than economics. The bogus statistics cited by the biggest boosters of this issue have more to do with pandering than equality. It’s a talking point, a simplification of larger societal issues that we avoid talking about because they are complicated, rendering them politically useless.
DeLauro is championing legislation to close the gap, objectively titled the “Paycheck Fairness Act,” which actually just gives people another excuse to sue their employers. It does not do anything to close the wage gap.
What would close the wage gap? Stopping women from getting married.
For single women the gap is mere pennies — they earn 96 cents to every dollar a man earns.
So marriage, and with it motherhood, deeply affects our paychecks, but not because we become any less educated or experienced, but because it changes our priorities.
We women bear both the burden and gift of giving life to the next generation. The strange magic that happens after you bring a life into the world — Ariel Levy writes tragically and beautifully about this in the New Yorker — is real, and it often changes the choices we make.
My own working life reflects this pattern. With four children, I’ve stepped in and out of the workforce and have often chosen to work part-time or freelance because I wanted to be home more with my kids. This isn’t the best or right choice for every woman, but it was right for me.
Not everyone is supportive of women who lean out.
When I was a graduate student at Columbia University, one of my journalism professors gave an entire lecture to our small seminar group on how you can’t both have “connections” — children, or even spouses he seemed to be arguing — and also be a good journalist. At the time I was about six months pregnant with my third child, and I can still remember the feeling of my face burning as I sat there and listened to him.
Thankfully I was (mostly) secure enough to know he was wrong, or at least that he was looking at this issue through a very distorted lens. Our “connections” make life more meaningful.
In the same vein, earning “equal pay” will not necessarily make women’s lives better. You cannot monetize everything. Is a woman who earns more worth more? Or is she living a better life?
Of course women do still face obstacles in the workforce — a New York Times article last week detailed some of the challenges that exist for women working in the technology sector — but sunlight is often a better remedy than more legislation. Our government seems to thrive on making us all victims of some kind of discrimination.
So if not the wage gap, what will help women? How about valuing the choices they make, whatever they are. Embracing flexibility in the workplace — including greater flexibility in our labor laws. Addressing the marriage gap, or eliminating the marriage penalty in our tax and benefits structure.
And how about lowering the tax burden on middle class families in Connecticut? While we may have passed Equal Pay Day, we’re still a month away from Tax Freedom Day.
Suzanne Bates is a writer living in South Windsor with her family. While traveling across the country as an Air Force spouse, she worked for news organizations including the Associated Press, New Hampshire Union Leader and Good Morning America Weekend. She recently completed a research fellowship at the Yankee Institute. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.