Congress may have failed recently to take action on a Democratic proposal for equal pay legislation, with the Senate failing to muster the votes to even talk about the Paycheck Fairness Act — a bill passed by the House that’s been pending for a decade. But after years of denying that a wage gap exists, many Republicans now say they, too, support equal pay for men and women. So plan on hearing a whole lot more about it as both parties gear up to use the issue in upcoming elections as a way to attract critical women voters.

Jumping into the fray, the American Association of University Women just published wage gap data by state, the better for voters to analyze by congressional district and quiz candidates on their positions. “We’re hoping this can lead to good discussions and debates in town hall meetings,” said Lisa Maatz, AAUW’s vice president of government relations. “We know equal pay is something that motivates women voters.”


AAUW’s “By the Numbers: A Look at the Gender Pay Gap.”

On Thursday, advocates pushing for women’s economic security, the Make It Work campaign, are releasing new poll data by Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm, that shows that 75 percent of voters they surveyed favor candidates who support equal pay and other legislation to support working families, like paid sick days and paid family leave.

With all that in mind, and a whole lot of argument about what the wage gap is, and whether it even exists, here’s a wage gap primer.

First, the wage gap that everyone talks about is sort of misleading. The U.S. Census Bureau recently came out with new numbers showing that women now earn 78 cents for every $1 a man earns – a boost of one penny over last year — which one fair pay advocate greeted with a “whoop de doo.” Still, it’s a heck of a lot better than the 57 cents that women earned for every $1 a man did in 1973, just as women were beginning to enter the labor force en masse.

Critics say the wage gap is like comparing apples and oranges and doesn’t show discrimination against women, as much as the fact that men and women tend to do different kinds of jobs and work different hours. Men, on average, still put in more hours on the job than women, who are still primarily responsible for childcare and housework, research shows, even when they work full time.

And all of that is true.

The wage gap, then, is more of a reflection of the overall state of employment for men and women. More men go into high-paying professions like engineering and computer science. And, while opportunities have opened up for women, women tend to go into lower-paying fields like teaching, nursing and social work. And even though women make up half the labor force, a greater proportion of women work in low-wage or low-paying jobs.

When AAUW crunched the numbers by race and ethnicity, it clearly shows women of color tend to be in lower paid professions and in lower-wage jobs than white men.


AAUW

Now, the interesting – and troubling — part:

Why do fields like teaching, nursing and social work tend to pay less?

And why do men, when they do go into teaching, nursing and social work, and work the same number of hours as women, still tend to earn more?

Let’s leave the first question, which may indeed be a vestige of gender discrimination and the relatively low value society places on caregiving and traditionally feminine fields, and attend to the second.

When researchers control for hours on the job, major, profession, industry and a host of other factors to get an apples-to-apples comparison of wages, they find incontrovertible evidence of a wage gap that can’t be explained for any other reason than that one worker is a man and another is a woman.

Michelle Budig, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has sliced and diced wage data and, in both testimony before Congress and in a recently released report, found one of the biggest culprits behind the wage gap: motherhood.


Michelle Budig, 2014

When she controlled for equal full-time hours and other factors, she found that unmarried or childless women are almost at pay equity with men, earning 96 cents and 93 cents, respectively to an unmarried or childless man’s dollar.

But mothers? On an apples-to-apples comparison, they really do earn 76 cents for every fathers’ $1, she found, using the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The gap reflects some deeply held cultural beliefs, Budig explained. We tend to think of fathers as providers and breadwinners who will now work even harder and be more committed with the arrival of children.

The gap reflects the still-strong belief that working mothers can’t be as committed at work, and will be too distracted by home demands to perform and compete. “It’s amazing how much these statistics both reflect stereotypes and reinforce them,” Maatz said.

(Remember the 2013 comments by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones at a University of Virginia conference? No? Let me remind you.):

“You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men. Period. End of story,” Jones said. “The idea that you could think straight for 60 seconds and be able to make a rational decision is impossible, particularly when their kids are involved.” He talked about two women he worked with in the 1970s. “As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it,” Jones said.

Women in science, technology, engineering and math — though there are relatively few — earn more than women in other professions. And while the apples-to-apples wage gap tends to be smaller than in other professions, it’s still there, ranging from 7 percent in engineering, one study by the U.S. Commerce Department found, to 12 percent in math and computer science.


U.S. Department of Commerce

And an earlier report by the AAUW shows the apples-to-apples wage gap in many professions starts right out of the gate after college graduation.

“We found that even when men and women have the same college major and go into same field, one year after graduation, when the pay should be most similar, there’s still a 7 percent gap,” Maatz said. “And that goes up to 12 percent within 10 years. We found that pretty much across all fields.”


AAUW “Graduating to a Pay Gap” 2012

The one employer with relatively fair pay between men and women, Maatz said, is the federal government. Why? Because salary scales are published and widely known — so women, who historically have not negotiated for higher salaries, or are punished when they do — have more information about where to start.

That kind of transparency, among other provisions, is exactly what the Paycheck Fairness Act calls for.