As many have heard, yesterday was Equal Pay Day. Full-time working women, on average, have to work an en extra three-and-a-half months to earn the same amount of money as full-time working men make in a year.
To all who care about basic fairness, this should be a scandalous situation. Many people, however, dispute that there is even a problem. In doing so, they promulgate numerous myths—myths that have seeped into the collective conscience of a large fraction of the country.
One particularly popular myth is that women earn less because many of them take large amounts of time off from their careers to spend at home raising children. A typical version of this fallacy goes like this:
Consider that women typically take about a decade out of the workforce caring for family. It’s reasonable that a 35-year-old woman reentering the workforce after ten years earns less than a man or woman who worked continuously during that time.
Sadly, this argument isn't just promoted by the pay-gap deniers, who are so common amongst right-wing pundits these days. I've even seen this raised by those who know the pay gap is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
Many studies have been done that take differences in experience, education, and numerous other factors into account. The pay gap between men and women persists even after these factors are included. For instance, a comprehensive study by the General Accounting Office released in late 2003 reports:
We found that before controlling for any variables that may affect earnings, on average, women earned about 44 percent less than men over the time period we studied—1983 to 2000. However, after controlling for the independent variables that we included in our model, we found that this difference was reduced to about 21 percent over this time period.
The "independent variables" considered in this study include all of the following: annual hours worked, time out of the labor force, work experience, highest education achieved, full-time versus part-time schedule, length of unemployment, tenure, occupation, industry, self-employment status, and numerous demographic variables. Yet even after controlling for all these complicating issues, women still earn 21% less than men, a figure barely different from the more simply measured value of 24%.
The idea that the pay gap is due largely to women taking time off to raise children is thus complete fiction.