The term “fake news” has been overused to the point of meaningless since the election, with members of either side of the political divide using it to dismiss credible news stories that don’t fit their agenda.
But few issues are more likely to elicit a claim of fake news than discussions about the wage gap, a myth constructed and perpetuated by the failing, liberal, fake news media, according to members of the political right.
The wage gap is a “myth,” according to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze. A “lie,” says Breitbart. And, of course, “fake news,” per Trump supporters, libertarians and anti-feminists on Reddit. “Don’t Buy Into The Gender Pay Gap Myth,” instructs Forbes contributor Karin Agness Lips, a Harvard fellow and founder of Network of enlightened Women, a conservative women’s group.
Progressives, meanwhile, get exasperated at wage-gap deniers for failing (or refusing) to acknowledge the social forces that contribute to women’s decreased earning power in the workforce.
In other words, the wage gap has become one of the hottest political footballs in our hyper-politicized times, especially on social media, where people tend to be more interested in having their beliefs reaffirmed than engaging in a good-faith, fact-based discussion.
Stoking the fire is the fact that neither side is entirely wrong about the wage gap, nor are they entirely right. The disagreement stems from contradicting interpretations of the same data set — or rather, either faction parsing the same data to fit their respective worldviews.
Particularly in question is the oft-cited “women make 78 cents to the dollar” figure. And indeed, among full-time workers, women earned 78 percent of what men did in 2015, according to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (a division of the Department of Labor).
But conservatives argue there’s far more nuance to that number, and they’re right. Particularly, they say it’s a rough figure that doesn’t take into account the hours and types of jobs men and women work.
Yes, women earn 78 percent of what men do when speaking about the aggregate of all wages earned in the economy. But the number, they argue, doesn’t reflect the fact women willingly work more low-paying jobs. For example, the most common job for women is secretary, according to recent U.S. Census data.
“Men in general tend to aim to acquire higher paying careers, and work more hours in them than women do,” writes The Blaze’s Brandon Morse. That difference in career ambition skews the data, making it seem like women don’t receive equal pay for equal work.
If a woman elects to take a lower-paying job — presumably so she can have time to care for her children — that’s her prerogative; not an indication of rampant gender discrimination in the job market, conservatives argue.
A closer look at the data shows that, when accounting for position, occupation and hours worked, the pay gap is actually narrower than the 78 percent number suggests. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center finds that in 2015, women earned 83 percent of what men earned when looking at the median hourly wages of all full- and part-time American workers.
The gap was even smaller (90 percent) for young workers (ages 25 to 34 years old). In fact, young female workers made 93 cents on the dollar in 2012. And recent research in the U.S. and U.K. shows that among recent college grads, women actually earn more than men. That’s due to women pulling ahead of men educationally, and men being disproportionately affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs.
That’s still a gap, though, and it widens with age. As women progress through their careers, their earning potential diminishes relative to men, according to Pew. And job sites find a pay gap does exist between men and women who work the same job. For instance, female technical directors earn $40,000 less than men with the same title, according to jobs site The Ladders. And for accountants, the gap was more than $32,000.
Why that disparity exists is the real crux of this argument, and how you explain it depends on which side of the Culture War you occupy.
For lefties, the decrease in women’s earning potential is proof of systemic sexism in the workforce, and the culture at large. Women don’t take lower paying occupations, work fewer hours or have relatively modest career ambitions because they want to, but because there’s still undue pressure on women to handle most child-rearing and domestic duties.
They’re not willingly leaving the workplace to take care of Little Jimmy — they’re doing it because many men refuse to. It’s no mistake that the gender gap widens as workers approach their parenting years.
The gender gap, then, is a reflection of patriarchy at large, a phrase sure to trigger conservative men.
After all, they believe that women arrive at their relatively low-stress, low-paying jobs because they’re natural caretakers who genuinely enjoy raising their children, and “No, actually, you’re sexist!” for suggesting women should feel bad about choosing to stay home.
“American women are among the best informed and most self-determining human beings in the world,” feminist YouTube personality Christina Hoff Sommers writes in Time. “To say that they are manipulated into their life choices by forces beyond their control is divorced from reality and demeaning, to boot.”
When women fully commit to their careers, there’s little evidence of pay discrimination against them, the argument goes.
That’s what this debate really boils down to you: Whether you believe women have truly achieved the ability to choose for themselves whatever work-life balance they desire, and that the “pay gap” is just the natural order of things; or whether it’s the result of the ever-present but impossible to quantify existence of sexism in our society.