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The wage gap, re-examined


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In this week’s “Glee” episode (yes, I promise this is going somewhere) choir instructor Will Schuester tries to rally his female students into feeling more empowered. They blow him off, with one choir member telling him, “The fact is that women still earn 70 cents to every $1 that men do for doing the same job.”

At first, I was excited to hear a savvy high-school student showing interest in contemporary women’s issues. Plus, my enthusiasm was hindered a bit by the knowledge that the “fact” wasn’t actually a fact. The most recent numbers point to that figure hovering at around 77 cents to the $1.

After mentally correcting the TV show, I began to realize how fuzzy my own conceptions were of the statistic. Does 77 cents to the $1 account for everyone? Are job choices taken into consideration, or does 77 cents to the $1 only compare men and women holding the same occupations? And how do changes in the demographics make a difference?

Upon realizing I didn’t really know how to decipher this statistic, my feminist guilt kicked in. This figure is one of those go-to stats many people cite (sometimes incorrectly, as noted above) when speaking of disparate treatment of women in contemporary society — though I have a sneaking suspicion that many, including me, don’t really understand the implications at the heart of the issue.

After looking into the topic, as I anticipated, there’s more to the wage gap issue than that “77 cents” implies.

The first fact about wage gap? It’s a lot more subjective than one might guess. Some say the 77 percent women allegedly make compared with men doesn’t control for many significant factors, such as education and experience.

So what kind of difference does this make? Well, according to a 1998 study provided by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women’s earnings rise to 81 percent of men’s when these factors are accounted for (the wage gap in 1998 was reported at 76.3 percent). Even more encouraging, this study reports that when factors such as occupation, industry, and union membership are taken into consideration, the gap is reduced further, with women making 91 percent of what men do.

So if these numbers are so high, what brings the statistic down to 77 percent? Well, this is where things get less rosy.

Women are more likely to occupy lower-paying fields than men. And even when compared with men from in these more female-occupied, lower-paying fields, men are often still paid higher wages.

For instance, according to a 2008 study from the U.S. Census Bureau, female secretaries were paid only 83.4 percent of what their male counterparts were paid. And, instinctively, male-dominated fields show even grimmer results when comparing male-female wages.

Also discouraging: According to a study from the nonprofit group Catalyst, women make $4,600 less annually in their first job than men. And when ethnicity is taken into account, the numbers are even bleaker. African American women make 68 percent of what their male counterparts do, and the number decreases to 58 percent for Latinas, the Census Bureau reports.

Closer to home, Iowa is about in line with the national average, though the state has made improvements over the past decade in decreasing the wage gap. According to 2008’s Iowa Gender Wage Equity Study from Iowa Workforce Development, women in Iowa make 78.2 percent of what men do. This is 5.2 percent more than a 1999 study reported.

So, though breaking the statistic down into more statistics may help get a clearer picture of the wage-gap issue at hand, numbers don’t answer the biggest questions of all: Why does this gap still exist, what can be done to close it, and when will it be gone?

I wish I could just Google a statistic to answer those questions.

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