October 24 2012

What's Behind the AAUW's New Report on the Wage Gap?

Charlotte Hays

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has attempted a really clever ploy: releasing, in the final days of a presidential election season, a report that claims women are paid less than their male counterparts fresh out of college.

This is clearly an effort to combat the highly effective debunking of the so-called wage gap by other women’s groups (that would include us) over the last decade. We have explained that the so-called wage gap is the result not of discrimination but of choices women make.

The AAUP obviously wants to “prove” that the gap begins before women have made any significant professional choices. It is an update of a 2007 report, but right out of the gate, there are some serious problems.

Christina Hoff Sommers writes:

Can the AAUW be trusted? Consider its record.

The 2007 report does give readers the impression that millennial women are facing serious workplace discrimination. But buried on page 18, we find this qualification: “After controlling for all the factors known to affect earnings, college-educated women earn about 5 percent less than college-educated men earn. Thus, while discrimination cannot be measured directly, it is reasonable to assume that this pay gap is the product of discrimination.” As Steve Chapman noted in Reason, “Another way to put it is that three-quarters of the gap clearly has innocent causes—and that we actually don’t know whether discrimination accounts for the rest.”

The AAUW was once a serious women’s organization. Since the early nineties, it has devolved into a hard-nosed, K Street-style special interest group that stops at nothing to defend its “women are victims” narrative. In 2008, Linda Hallman, the AAUW executive director, announced her organization’s determination to continue to “break through barriers” for women and girls­­ – and not to allow “adversaries” to obstruct its mission:

Our adversaries know that AAUW is a force to be reckoned with, and that we have ‘staying power’ in our dedication to breaking through the barriers that we target. … We ARE Breaking through Barriers. We mean it; we’ve done it before; and we are ‘coming after them’ again and again and again, if we have to! All of us, all the time.”(AAUW emphasis)

It is hard to imagine such a warning coming from Brookings, AEI, or the Urban Institute — or indeed, any research center that warrants serious attention.

Hoff Sommers writes that it is possible that we will all “be pleasantly surprised and the new report will be different from the reckless advocacy” of the AAuW. But she is not sanguine on this point.

A quick read of the report indicates that the 18 percentage-point disparity it alleges can, in point of fact, be explained by choices women already have made, even at that early stage of their careers. Men and women may major in the same fields, but they make different choices from the beginning.

Men are more likely to opt for such high-paying fields as engineering and computer science. The researchers controlled for this, along with other variables, but there was still an “unexplained” 6.6 percentage-point gap.

So the wag is 6.6 percent once you control for occupation choice.  And that doesn't control for women also having different preferences (being less able to move etc.) and or negotiating well. So basically we are working with a 6.6 percent gap which could, but may not, have something to do with discrimination.  

What’s really behind this interestingly-timed report? Could it be politics, pure and simple? The press release hails the report as "part of a larger nonpartisan [?!] effort to encourage young people to vote their economic interests. It's My Vote: I Will be Heard is AAUW's national campaign to motivate millennial women to vote by educating them on issues such as equal pay, student loans, and birth control.”

In addition to offering recommendations for employers and individuals, the report also advocates passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

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