New Year's Day is called that because it begins a new year, and Thanksgiving has that name because it's an occasion for expressing gratitude. But Equal Pay Day, observed this year on April 24, is named for something that, we are told, doesn't exist -- equal pay for men and women.
The National Committee on Pay Equity used the occasion to announce that among full-time workers, women make only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men. The three leading Democratic presidential candidates have all endorsed legislation to fix the problem.
And the effort got new fuel from a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation, which says women are paid less starting with their first jobs out of college, and that the deficit only grows with time. Pay discrimination, says AAUW, is still "a serious problem for women in the work force."
In reality, that's not clear at all. What we know from an array of evidence, including this report, is that most if not all of the discrepancy can be traced to factors other than sexism. When it comes to pay equity, we really have come a long way.
On its face, the evidence in the AAUW study looks damning. "One year out of college," it says, "women working full-time earn only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues earn. Ten years after graduation, women fall farther behind, earning only 69 percent as much as men earn."
But read more, and you learn things that don't get much notice on Equal Pay Day. As the report acknowledges, women with college degrees tend to go into fields like education, psychology and the humanities, which typically pay less than the sectors preferred by men, such as engineering, math and business. They are also more likely than men to work for nonprofit groups and local governments, which do not offer salaries that Alex Rodriguez would envy.
As they get older, many women elect to work less so they can spend time with their children. A decade after graduation, 39 percent of women are out of the work force or working part time -- compared with only 3 percent of men. When these mothers return to full-time jobs, they naturally earn less than they would have if they had never left.
Even before they have kids, men and women often do different things that may affect earnings. A year out of college, notes AAUW, women in full-time jobs work an average of 42 hours a week, compared to 45 for men. Men are also far more likely to work more than 50 hours a week.