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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Playing Politics with the Pay Gap

Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn took a page from Democrats when she wrongly claimed that “the White House [is] paying women 88 cents for every dollar that a guy earns in comparable positions.” That’s not true for the same reason Democrats have been wrong when they’ve said women in the U.S. earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men for doing the same work. Neither is a direct comparison of pay for doing the same job.

Blackburn’s claim was based on an analysis of White House staff members’ pay by the conservative American Enterprise Institute that concluded female staffers earn 88 cents on the dollar compared with men. The analysis, by Mark Perry, an AEI scholar and a professor of economics at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan, looked at salary data from the “2013 Annual Report to Congress on White House Staff.” He found that the 229 women employed in the Obama White House earned a median salary of $65,000 last year, compared with a median salary of nearly $73,729 for the 229 men on the White House staff.  Here’s the accompanying graphic:


That statistic was cited by Blackburn on CBS’ “Face the Nation” when she was asked why Senate Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act of 2014. Blackburn said she found the Democrats’ ” ‘war on women’ rhetoric just almost silly.” The Tennessee Republican argued that the proposed law would have been a boon to trial lawyers, and that Democratic initiatives like the Affordable Care Act are “very unfair to women.” And then Blackburn cited the disparity in pay among White House staffers.

Blackburn, April 13: And by the way, the White House is paying women 88 cents for every dollar that a guy earns in comparable positions. They need to go clean up their own act first.

The 88-cents figure was put to White House spokesman Jay Carney during an April 7 press briefing. Carney said the disparity had nothing to do with women earning lesser pay for doing the same jobs.

Carney, April 7: And here at the White House equal pay legislation deems that there should be equal pay for equal work, and that’s what we have — men and women in equivalent roles here earn equivalent salaries. …

I think that those studies look at the aggregate of everyone on staff, and that includes from the most junior levels to the most senior. … And when it comes to the bottom line that women who do the same work as men have to be paid the same, there is no question that that is happening here at the White House at every level.

The AEI study didn’t compare wages for similar positions, but the AEI’s Perry told us in an email that Carney is “probably basically correct” when he says the pay for men and women in the same positions with the same experience level is likely the same. As a New York Times graphic on such salaries said, most White House salaries are set by a pay schedule. “So it’s probably a matter of just following a formula based on job title, previous job experience, and maybe level of education,” Perry said.

The New York Times breakdown of the jobs by pay scale shows that women slightly outnumber men in the bottom two income categories, while men slightly outnumber women in the top two. Perry agreed that the pay gap in the White House is “partly/mostly explained” by that graphic. There are simply more women in lower-paying junior positions, and so the median salary lags that of men.

And that is why Blackburn’s comment that “the White House [is] paying women 88 cents for every dollar that a guy earns in comparable positions,” (our emphasis) is incorrect. The comparison is for all jobs, not comparable ones, and men hold more of the upper-level positions.

Democrats Wrong on Pay Gap, Too

For much the same reason, we were critical of the Obama campaign when it made the claim in a 2012 reelection campaign ad that women are “paid 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men.” The statistic is based on the most recent annual Census Bureau findings on median annual income. The Census Bureau concluded that, in 2010, “the earnings of women who worked full time, year-round were 77 percent of that for men working full time, year-round.”

But as we wrote in 2012, that’s the median (midpoint) for all women in all jobs, not for women doing “the same work” or even necessarily working the same number of hours. Furthermore, the raw gap for all women is not quite as large when looking at weekly earnings rather than yearly earnings.

According to the latest Labor Department figures, women earned 81 cents on the dollar when looking at weekly earnings in 2012. The median weekly earnings for women working full time at jobs paying a wage or salary was $691, compared with $854 for men. And although all these workers had normal work weeks of at least 35 hours (the minimum for “full time”), the Labor Department study noted that, for whatever reason, “men are more likely than women to have a longer workweek.” It said that among men and women who had a 40-hour workweek, “women earned 88 percent as much as men earned.”

Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 2013: Twenty-six percent of men worked 41 or more hours per week in 2012, compared with 14 percent of women who did so. Women were more likely than men to work 35 to 39 hours per week: 12 percent of women worked those hours in 2012, while 5 percent of men did. A large majority of both male and female full-time workers had a 40-hour workweek; among these workers, women earned 88 percent as much as men earned.

Hours worked is just one qualifier. Studies also have found that women are disproportionately represented in jobs that pay lower salaries. Breaking figures down by occupation, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research showed women doing the “same work” (that is, within the same occupational groupings) often make much more than 77 percent of their male counterparts’ median weekly earnings.

The IWPR study found that “median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations.” But for the most part, the gap for “the same work” is not as wide as 23 cents. Of the 36 different occupational categories in the study, in only seven were women paid 77 percent of the pay of men or less.

Pay disparity figures — particularly when they claim to be tied to doing comparable jobs — imply discrimination, and experts say only part of the gap is due to discrimination. An economist and a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis concluded that the economic literature indicates the actual pay gap between men and women with similar characteristics is “much lower” than the raw gap. Despite the gains in recent decades, they wrote:

Natalia Kolesnikova and Yang Liu, October 2011: Men are more likely to be lawyers, doctors and business executives, while women are more likely to be teachers, nurses and office clerks. This gender occupational segregation might be a primary factor behind the wage gap.

Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told us in a phone interview that researchers have estimated that somewhere between 25 percent and 40 percent of the wage gap can be explained by discrimination.

In recent speeches, Obama has frequently cited the 77-cents figure, but he has been careful not to directly link it to performing the same work. Still, we can see how some might get the impression that Obama is talking about women doing comparable work. The president often concludes — as he did after citing the statistic during his State of the Union address — that “women deserve equal pay for equal work.” And when he uses the statistic, it is usually in the context of the need for laws to prevent gender discrimination in pay.

Another Democrat has simply misused the statistic. In a recent TV ad that features his two grown daughters, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf says, “As the father of two daughters, I’m especially sensitive to the fact that women are paid only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, when they do the same work.”

Again, the 77-cents figure is not a statistic comparing men and women’s salaries for doing the same work. It is an aggregation of salaries for all full-time men and women. And the same is true for the 88-cents figure that Blackburn used for the White House. That’s what women earn for every dollar men make for all positions, not for doing “comparable work.”

— Robert Farley