Steve Chapman

As any debater knows, defining the issue is a major part of the battle. On Tuesday, Democrats failed to persuade the Senate to approve the Paycheck Fairness Act. What are we to conclude from that outcome? That paychecks will be unfair, to the detriment of America's working women.

That's the claim of those supporting the legislation. President Barack Obama said it would merely mandate "equal pay for equal work." Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada warned beforehand that failing to pass the bill would send "the message to little girls across the country that their work is less valuable because they happened to be born female."

On Rachel Maddow's blog, the complaint was that women are "still only making 77 cents for every dollar men earn in similar jobs," but Republicans "seem indifferent to the problem."

This is a myth resting on a deception. The Washington Post's official Fact Checker faulted Obama's claim, noting that "there is a wage gap, but it has declined over the decades -- and depending on how the data are viewed, in some cases it barely exists."

A difference, in any event, does not prove discrimination. Most Broadway theatergoers are female, but not because playwrights have an animus toward males. The gap reflects many benign factors stemming from the choices voluntarily made by women and men. Same with the pay gap.

Women, on average, work fewer hours and are more likely than men to take time off for family duties. A 2009 report commissioned by the U.S. Labor Department concluded that such "factors account for a major portion and, possibly, almost all of the raw gender wage gap."

"The gender gap shrinks to between 8 percent and 0 percent when the study incorporates such measures as work experience, career breaks and part-time work," Baruch College economist June O'Neill has written.

Statistical analysis, however, cuts no ice with some. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., ridicules those skeptics who cite such inconvenient evidence: "They're basically saying women choose to be paid less than men."

Not exactly. I didn't volunteer to be paid less than a big law firm partner or corporate CEO -- but going into journalism assured that I would be. Women don't go to the boss and request a smaller salary, but many of them make choices that lead to that outcome.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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