77% Fact or Fallacy

A fair pay act is in the works and legislators in support are attempting to cite a statistic which I knew to be technically true, but functionally false. They claim that women earn 77% that of men and he pledged to end the disparity. The unfortunate thing about statistics is legitimate statistics can be easily used to mislead by just overlooking a point or two (I urge the reader to overlook the irony as I cite multiple statistics). So while technically a statistic can be true, in light of the full scope of evidence the conclusion is skewed. This number, 77% jumped right out at me since not long ago I had read on this issue and found my self surprised by the number, but after being exposed to the rest of the story I was able to understand there were reasons for the apparent disparity and low and behold it was not due to the kinds discrimination law makers are alluding to. I understand this topic can create controversy, but I see no reason why it must create controversy. With an open mind and careful thought a reasonable conclusion can be reached with a little effort and understanding.

In fact there are evenhanded reasons as to why the disparity is what it is. What supporting law makers fail to reveal is,women do not tend to seek vocations which tend to pay the highest wages, and when they do the women in those positions are in far less proportion, which in itself will bring down averages. According to the U.S. Census bureau women make up 74% of “clerical and kindred” occupations while only 5% of “transport equipment operatives”, put another way they are more likely to be working at a desk than behind the wheel. It has been long the way of the work force that physical work demands higher pay than does the average office job. This fact also has its part in lowering averages. Women comprise less than 4% of construction extraction maintenance, less than 3 % construction workers or loggers, less than 2% roofers and masons, and less than 1% of mechanics and technicians who service heavy vehicles and mobile equipment(1).

While it is true that men make up 54% of the overall workforce, they account for 92% of job related death(2). Men tend to work at more dangerous jobs than do women, and as a result those high risk jobs are compensated higher than average. Women generally speaking avoid the high risk, highly physical occupations, which tend to be the highest paying. The trend the statistics bear out is women plan and prepare for motherhood when choosing careers, they purposely (subconsciously or intentionally) choose those jobs that are less physical.

Even taking into consideration the less physical jobs and comparing men and women on a more equal comparison, motherhood is a factor. When women take time off from work to care for their children before they reach school age, that leave comes with (for lack of a better term) consequences. In many jobs seniority accrual is halted, along with pay raises. The more children a woman has the fewer years of job experience she has at her particular vocation. Tax accountants and computer programmers and technicians to name a few are jobs where there is constant updates in technologies, and it really could be left unsaid, but the vast changes to tax laws which go into effect every year is insane. To miss time for raising children in these occupations would set one back far behind one’s colleagues. For example, a physicist would lose one half their value of knowledge in 4 years; it would take an English teacher 25 years to lose half the value. This would explain why women tend to work in fields with low obsolescence. In fact in 2005, women accounted for 60% of the doctoral degrees in education while only 20% of engineering(3).

Whether you would agree that women should take the time off rather than men is irrelevant to what does happen. Women generally speaking, plan to take time off from work to care for children, while men plan to work more hours to take more money home to make up for lost income when the mother is caring for his children. So when women do work in the same fields as men, attorneys for example, they tend to do so in different capacities. The propensity for women to be attorneys at law firms which handle large work loads which demand long hours working on cases, or clients that require spontaneous attention is low. But civil law and working for governments and other companies where 9-5 hours are all that is necessary, the propensity is higher. So even while working in the same field, the pay, when simply looking at the bottom figure, is going to show men more often at the highest earnings. A survey of people whose earnings were in the top 6% showed that 63% of those worked more than 50 hours per week, and 35% worked more than 60. Those numbers are hard to put up when caring for children. In fact of the jobs classified as extreme hours and stress, women make up less than one fifth of those employed in those positions(4). A follow up study of mathematically gifted young students who are now in their thirties, showed that higher proportion of women than men working less than 40 hours per week, and a higher proportion of men than women working more than 50 hours per week(5). The long hour high stress careers do not seem to be as attractive to women as they are to men.

It’s simply not accurate to cite a bottom line figure as it can be highly misleading. In fact college educated, never married, with no children, ages 40-64 men’s salary average is $40,000 while their women counterparts average $47,000(6). A 2001 survey of Harvard Business School graduates discovered among the women from classes 1981, 1985, and 1991, 31% currently at the time of the study, worked part time and another 31% did not work at all(7). A study of graduates from the University of Michigan Law School found a similar pattern to the hours worked and overall income:

“the gap in pay between men and women was relatively small at the outset of their careers, but 15 years later, women graduates only earned 60% as much as men. Some of this difference reflected choices which workers had made, including the propensity of women lawyers to work shorter hours.” (8)

Another study discovered that the gender gap in pay is 5% for part time workers age 21-35 without children, 3% at full time without children, and there is no gap for full time workers with no children who live alone(9).

Part time jobs produce less total income for obvious reasons, less hours equals less pay. But part time jobs also have much less chances for promotions and advancement. Part time workers generally speaking are there to work a job for extra money, not to build a career. While there are exceptions to every rule, such as intentions of making full time hours. The norm is part time work is just that, and there has always been more women than men in part time work(10). The New England Journal of medicine found:

“In 1990, young male physicians earned 41% more per year than young female physicians….However, after adjusting for differences in specialty, practice setting, and other characteristics, no earnings difference was found”(11).

The young male physicians in this particular study had worked more than 500 hours a year more than did the female physicians(12). This trend of more hours worked by men is consistent throughout the work force. The per hour pay difference when comparing same occupation and industry is 6.2 cents(13).

Children and families result in fewer hours worked for women and the exact opposite for men. A 2001 study by the American Economic Review discovered at ages 25-44, which are the prime ages for career development and advancement, 34% of women with children under the age of 6 were not currently working. 30% of women who were employed were so part time compared with 11% of women with no children. Conversely among men, the presence of children was associated with an increase of work involvement. Only 4% of men with children under the age of 6 were out of work, and among those men working only 2% were so in a part time capacity(14).

We all know a politician’s chief job is to get themselves elected, which is only due to their second most important job of getting re-elected. Legislators misuse a well known and much misrepresented statistic to make a promise to right a non-existent wrong. I think this tactic is common place among opportunistic politicians of either party, and all too often people will not fact check information. They neither have the desire nor the time it might take to do so. All this being said, to be charitable to our politicians, it is entirely possible they are mistaken and have been taken in by a number they thought was an accurate representation of the pay gap between genders. So while I personally believe they know the misrepresentation, I am willing to grant them a misunderstanding, since the information above is readily available to anyone who wants to investigate for the sake of truth, but is a common fallacy and one most people do not fully understand.

1) U.S Bureau of the Census, Evidence from Census 2000 About Earnings for Men and Women. Census 2000 Special Reports, May 2004, p. 10; U.S Bureau of the Census, We the People: Women and Men in the United States, Census 2000 Special Reports, January 2005, p. 11.

2) Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Christine Stolba, Women’s Figures, 1999 edition, p. 33.

3) Thomas B. Hoffer, et al., Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2005 (Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, Univ. Chicago, 2006), p. 13

4) Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, “Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70 Hour Workweek,” Harvard Business Review, December 2006, pp. 50, 51, 56, 57.

5) David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow, “Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth After 35 Years,” Perspectives on Psychological Science. December 2006, p. 332

6) Warren Farrell, Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap and What Women Can Do About It (New York: Amacom, 2005), p. xxiii

7) Louise Story, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” New York Times September 20, 2005 p. A18

8) Francine D. Blau and Lawerence M. Kahn, “Gender Differences in Pay” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Autumn 2000, p. 83

9) Anita Hattiangadi and Amy M. Habib, A Closer Look at Comparable Worth, second edition (Washington: Employment Policy Foundation, 2000), p. 43

10) Donald Williams, “Women’s Part Time Employment: A Gross Flows Analysis” Monthly Labor Review, April 1995, p. 97

11) Laurence C. Baker, “Differences in Earnings Between Male and Female Physicians,” The New England Journal of Medicine, April 11, 1996, p. 960

12) Ibid., p. 962

13) Howard J. Wall, “The Gender Gap and Wage Discrimination” Illusion or Reality?” The Regional Economist, October 2000, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, pp. 10-11

14) June O’Neill, “The Gender Gap in Wages, circa 2000,” American Economic Review, May 2003, p. 310


  1. An issue I have with your argument is there is more going on than direct discrimination, though not even direct discrimination is gone entirely either. Indirect discrimination is still at play.
    Take for example “transport equipment operatives”, now as usually defined this would be what one would call a “truck driver”. Now what goes into consideration for their pay, hours and labor? There job is to move a set amount of cargo from a to be within a designated amount of time, and they are paid accordingly. This same description can be used for school bus drivers, they must move cargo from A to B and they have a certain amount of time to do this within. I would agree that since truck drivers are working more hours they should be paid more, but the difference between the rates of pay of the average truck driver is substantially more than that of a school bus driver. This is partially due to the value of work given to those jobs that are predominately female. Unlike truck drivers a school bus driver has a much higher chance of being a woman. Not only that, but it deals with children and work that deals with family, children, cleaning, etc are usually in the traditional mind set “women’s work” and are paid less across the board, tend to be the first jobs to be cut down to part time when businesses need to make cuts, receive less benefits, and in some cases are recognized as having different rights for example domestic workers in many areas are not granted the same rights as other labors because the work out of individuals homes which in some cases can put the worker even closer to harm. Another great example of how women’s work is valued less is with the career of nurses. When the majority of nurses were male earlier in USA history the average nurse did much better off comparatively in society. It was even viewed as more prestige work than it is now. When women took these jobs nursing was seen as less medical and more care giving and though the average nurse receives more education now, the prestige hasn’t returned. Care giving is something seen as “natural” for females, and not something that would need to be paid more.
    There is also more that goes into what jobs women pick than they naturally plan to be mothers and take less physical jobs. From a young age men and women are socialized differently and tracked differently into different fields. One can argue socializing differently is natural because it happens in all cultures, but it doesn’t happen equally in all cultures. In other cultures you find a much higher percentage of women doing math or science jobs and even physical labor. There are some cultures where the majority of dangerous jobs are done by women and children, so these show different levels of discrimination existing in the institution. Not only all girls in this country pushed more into different careers, but the system is self-reinforcing. Women are more comfortable in fields with other women, partially because gender difference ideologies and things like sexual harassment are felt by women more when they try to enter male dominate fields then when men enter female dominated fields. Women often feel like they have to constantly keep proving themselves over and over again as an representative of their sex not just their own personal accomplishments and this can put a lot of pressure on people, pressure many people feel more comfortable avoiding in favor of societal norms. This also explains how many times as the number of women in a certain field starts to increase they start to increase at a faster rate.
    Also, in our society women are the ones who are most often forced to choose between having a family and a career. It’s not women’s fault they are stuck on a biological clock, yet society penalizes them for this. If a women has to take time off to have children when she is young she loses pressure time she needs to build seniority in a company, the same seniority that many time will help her get more time off in the future. But if she stays in the work force, becomes more successful, and then wants a family not only is her biological clock running out but she has statistically reduced her likelihood for finding a husband. A woman in the USA only has a 5% chance of getting married by the time she is 40. Even at 28 and 30 yrs research has shown that American men are intimidated & not interested in high achieving women, making successful women less likely to find a spouse even young. The same “bread winner” complex hurts women multifold; men in the exact same job will be given a higher starting salary because traditional thinking is the man’s the bread winner who needs to support a family and men want to make more than their wives and many we’ll leave a potential life partner if this is not the case because of societal shame he feels. Women are also socialized to not anticipate as high of a starting salary so not only do they not know to ask but they are more likely to get grief from an employer when asking for a starting salary that’s considered too high. The important of marriage and motherhood are also more strongly socialized into girls than boys. Girls are given dollars while boys get blocks, trucks, tool kits, etc occupation related toys. A greater pressure to settle down and find a husband is also emphasized later in life for girls. Both girls and boys receive the same absents only sex education telling them not only are they waiting for marriage but that marriage HAS to be a goal in their life if they ever want to participate in a healthy sexuality, but it is teen GIRLS who get slut shamed by their peers while teen BOYS get a pat on the bat for being the STUD. Guys are freer to date/ fool around, while Girls must always be coupled into relationships. Showing how even though both men and women are supposed to get married, it’s shameful if a woman doesn’t achieve this goal which she has been taught to have from a very young age. But we act surprised when it’s women who put careers on the back burn in order to meet both societal and biological pressure and think it’s normal for the individual woman to have consequences for her personal decisions.
    There are also a lot of protections missing in this country to help make things even. The USA is one of the only westernized nations in the world to not require corporations to give PAID maternity and paternity leave. Causing many jobs to have maternity leave but not paternity leave let alone paid. So if one person in a couple will be fired for taking time off, while the other wont how does this not bias who will take care of the children and have to take time off or part time work? Also, corporations are allowed to have clauses that make talking about salaries with other employees a penalizing offence. This is also illegal in most other westernized countries and makes it easy for corporations to never get caught when even when they do directly discriminate.
    SO perhaps you found some errors in the statistics, but occupational opportunities for men versus women in our nation are still not even, but until we start to change institutional and cultural imbalances extra laws won’t be enough to lessen gaps.

  2. Just another thought, did you happen to investigate what percent of women hold multiple part time jobs, not just are part time employees? Or the gender percentage of people who are sole providers of single headed households? These two things also greatly impact why women don’t make it on to career paths as easily. And even when women do stay in work more pressure is put on the family because it usually means both parents are working versus with men they have in most cases the advantage of having someone at home taking care of their children, which may put a higher income burden on him with a loss of a wage earner but the MAN’s promotions can fix that easier than a promotion can fix finding reasonable child care and having a director impact on your children’s lives.

  3. Well written Kelsey B
    Does the 77% actually mean difference between women and men in yearly income? I thought it means that women earn 77% of every dollar earned by men for the jobs with equal requirements. That is a completely different concept, and the statistics and following reasoning represented here is shown in somewhat different light. In Europe this thing has been under discussion for ages and here we use the latter way of defining the difference.

    • It may very well be the case that in Europe, discrimination in pay is in place, but in the United States it is not. When men and women in the same field, working the same amount of hours, with the same seniority, the pay is equal. This is known by the politicians who pander to people who believe they are getting the shaft. Women make up more than 50% of the population and as such are a huge voting block. Get them on your side and try to buy their vote by telling them you’ll get the boogyman. Even if the law they are trying to pass is pushed through, nothing will change…because there is no true pay gap due to discrimination.

      • There are laws against sexual discrimination in pay in Europe also. These laws differ somewhat from country to country, but as Kelsey B pointed out, there are a lot of ways to discriminate outside present legal systems both in Europe and in the US. This problem has a lot to do with the oldfashioned attitudes of men. Since politicians are campaining on the agenda in question, we should expect them to set new better laws. It is also the third millenium, so it might be high time that attitudes and appreciation of working women would change.
        It is delightfull to read, that John Barron Jr who I believe sees himself as a conservative man (my thousand apologies, if I am wrong) is not against women having the same pay. Since that is the group of men, from which the main resistance of women getting into working life or having same pay, has traditionally come from. That is how the world changes. Little by little radical ideas turn into modern values, and these in turn become conservative fundaments.

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