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Our Old Friend the Wage Gap: It's Not the Real Story from Latest BLS Stats

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Just in time for the presidential campaign, the media is reporting that the so-called gender wage gap between what men and women earn is growing. Take this headline from the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch: "The gender pay gap widens as men's earnings grow twice as fast as women's."


Sounds dire, right?

While advocates of more government intervention in the workplace must have been licking their chops, it’s important actually to read the story and take a look at the data before concluding that a new wave of gender discrimination requiring government remedies has hit the country. This will no doubt provide a great talking point for Hillary Clinton--but it shouldn't.

Using numbers released Tuesday (Oct. 20) by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Market Watch notes that the weekly earnings for men working full-time was $889 in the third quarter of this year--a 2.2 percent increase from last year--while women who worked full time earned $721 weekly, up .8 percent from earlier this year. Market Watch explains this means that full-time women employees earned 81.1 cents for every dollar a man earned from July through September. "That’s down more than a penny from a year earlier," the story says.

Yet this is making a mountain out of a statistical blip. Yes, the gender gap shrank in 2013 and 2012, but you only need to go back another couple years to the dark ages of 2009 to find a larger gender gap than the one we have today. It does make a good headline, but the truth is this is probably just statistical noise.

Moreover, as with most stories about the gender pay gap, this Market Watch story ignores how the choices men and women make about work affect these numbers. For example, men tend to work in higher-paying fields such as engineering or math, while women often gravitate to careers in such lower-paying fields as education or social work. Indeed, if you look at the BLS stats, you will see that certain professions, such as engineering, saw their earning rise not by 2.2 percent but by 7.4 percent from last year.


The number of hours worked is also a key missing element of the picture. Thirty-five hours is considered a full-time job, but within that framework, there are differences for men and women. A website called StatCrunch puts the average difference in hours worked by men and women as high as six hours a week. Often women make this choice because they want to be more involved with their children. Research has also shown that younger, childless women living in urban areas on average than their male peers. This again suggests that it isn’t sexist attitudes or discrimination, but different work decisions, that explain earning patterns.

A Fortune magazine story on the BLS stats almost makes it sound as if it is sexist that longer hours are a factor. The story refers to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who "finds that the wage gap in these jobs is being driven by the fact that employers in the fields tend to disproportionately reward people who work long, inflexible hours," Fortune observes. Well, duh. Wouldn’t it be more surprising—and less fair—if longer hours weren’t associated with higher pay?

Media commentators fixated on the politically-loaded “wage gap” statistic are missing the real story in the new BLS figures: This lousy economy continues to generate stagnant earnings, for women and men.

When inflation is controlled for, women’s average weekly earnings are essentially unchanged since President Obama took office and men’s earnings have dipped slightly.


This is not nearly so helpful for the big government, progressive crowd, but this, not the wage gap, should be the headlines.

Our economy is just treading water and the policies of this administration haven’t improved the situation of the middle class. Rather we see more working-age Americans give up on their hopes for work, and leaving the workforce. Millions more are working hard but not seeing much in the way of results. This is the sad story that’s hidden in this economic data—of a fading sense of the American Dream—if reporters are willing to see it.

The Left would rather not focus on this, so seeks to stoke gender warfare instead, as if it would be somehow good for women if men's earnings were growing slower. Yet that’s not how people see the economy: We want better opportunities and better pay for women and men alike. Sadly, there is no evidence of that to use for a headline.


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