WSJ Op-Ed Page Not Too Sure About This 'So-Called Gender Wage Gap'

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg delivers a speech at "Women in Leadership and the Future of Online Business"
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg delivers a speech at "Women in Leadership and the Future of Online Business", hosted by Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) and CITIC Press Corporation and Xinrui New Media at a hotel in Beijing Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

There is a very real gulf between how much money women and men make. That gender wage gap cannot be argued away.

Yet conservative economists keep trying.

On Tuesday in a WSJ op-ed called “The 77 Cents on the Dollar Myth of Women’s Pay,” two male economists decry the “so-called gender wage gap.” Unequal pay is a myth perpetuated by President Barack Obama, claim Mark J. Perry and Andrew G. Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank focused on "liberty."

The "lie" of the wage gap makes it easier for women to sue companies trying to pay them less than men, they claim.

Conservatives are in a rage about the wage gap now because Obama plans to sign an executive order Tuesday that will bar federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their pay. The President is also directing Labor Secretary Tom Perez to require federal contractors to submit pay data that includes sex and race to the Labor Department.

The proposal "would create a disincentive for firms to hire women," write Perry and Biggs.

The authors are correct to note that Obama’s claim that women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar is misleading. That figure is derived by comparing the average weekly earnings of women to those of men. In other words, it’s unlikely that a woman makes 23 percent less than the male colleague with the same job and education sitting next to her.

Yet even when you account for factors like education, career choice and number of hours worked, women still make less than men, according to a number of studies.

Here’s why Perry and Biggs' claims don’t hold up:

The pay gap exists for women at all levels of their career, mothers or not, no matter what job they take: “The supposed pay gap appears when marriage and children enter the picture,” Perry and Biggs write.

While it’s true that the gap between men and women's earnings widens the further along both sexes get in their careers, women make less than men right out of school in jobs that require college.

In low-wage jobs that don’t require a degree, women still make less than men. In addition, women are much more likely to be clustered in these low-wage jobs -- they make up about two-thirds of minimum wage workers, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Motherhood doesn't have to automatically penalize female workers: The WSJ writers take for granted that having a child means women must naturally make less money than men. However, that doesn't have to be the case. Policies like paid family leave and subsidized child care have been shown to reduce the so-called “mommy penalty.” The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without mandated paid maternity leave.

So-called “women’s work” is undervalued: Perry and Biggs write that “women often choose fields of study such as sociology, liberal arts or psychology that tend to pay less in the labor market.”

While it’s true that women are more likely to choose jobs in social work, teaching and other caretaking fields, they’re likely not choosing to be paid less. As End of Men author Hanna Rosin puts it “Is it that women are choosing lower-paying professions or that our country values women's professions less?" The history of the secretary seems to indicate that it’s the latter. When companies first started hiring secretaries at the end of the industrial revolution, the position was dominated by men. Once companies realized they could pay women less to do the same thing, the field became largely dominated by women.

In addition, women often shy away from higher paying jobs in engineering and technology because of patterns of sexism that begin as early as grade school, according to an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education from experts in the science and engineering fields. And once women do decide to enter those sectors, they’re places that are notoriously hostile for them.

Even when women choose the same degrees and jobs, they're paid less and held back: As Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has made us well aware, women are less likely to “lean in” to promotions and raises then men. When they do, women are often up against well-ingrained stereotypes that mean assertive and decisive women tend to be viewed more negatively than their male counterparts.

The result: Women make up just 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, but 48.6 percent of the labor force overall, according to Catalyst, an organization dedicated to the advancement of women in business.