With it comes not just brackets about basketball, but countless contests that piggyback on the annual tournament craze. There are brackets for deciding the tastiest barbecue. The best 'Star Wars' characters. The worst business jargon, which last year decided "ideate" was the champion. (The Washington Post even has a few of its own, including "Beer Madness" and a Presidents' Day bracket associated with "Presidential," the podcast hosted by OnLeadership's Lillian Cunningham.)
The American Association of University Women is out with a bracket of its own. It takes the actual NCAA bracket for both the men's and women's tournaments and calculates the gender pay gap of male and female graduates from each school. Calling it the "Fair Pay Face-Off," AAUW determines the gap based on median earnings reported for graduates of each school in the U.S. Department of Education's data. Schools with the narrowest gap in each matchup advance to the next round.
"It's a great way to draw further attention to the pay gap," says Lisa Maatz, AAUW's vice president of government relations. But she notes that unlike brackets where people vote for their favorite beer or barbecue, "we are still using fact, not opinion."
So who goes all the way in this hypothetical tournament? A team that's already lost. In the AAUW men's bracket, Hampton University, a No. 16 seed that fell in the first round of the real matchup Thursday to No. 1 seed Virginia, has a gender pay ratio of 109 percent. That means female graduates from the historically black university in Hampton, Va., actually earn more than their male peers, the only school in either tournament where that's the case. In this hypothetical contest, it knocks out the school with the next best ratio, Butler University (92 percent), in the second round.
For the women's tournament, the "champion" is Alabama State University, also founded as a historically black college, where female graduates make 99 percent of what male graduates do, meaning there is practically no wage gap at all. In the actual tournament, the Montgomery, Ala.-based school is a No. 15 seed, facing No. 2 seed Texas in the first round Saturday.
Is it simply a coincidence, or is there something to the idea that schools that were started for African American students seem to graduate men and women into more equally paying jobs? Another school with roots as an institution for black students, North Carolina A&T, made it to the finals in AAUW's hypothetical women's bracket, too.
Maatz thinks there absolutely is something to it. While U.S. Census Bureau data show the pay gap is actually wider for black women when you compare them to men overall, black men also face a pay gap with white men, she says. As a result, AAUW's studies have shown there are generally narrower pay gaps between African American men and women than there are when comparing the overall population.
"There's a jeer within the cheer," Maatz says. "When we're talking about the pay gap, we often talk about the gendered pay gap, but there absolutely is a racial pay gap, too."
Using March Madness to draw attention to the pay gap isn't a first for the AAUW. The past two years, it created brackets based on the gap between the average pay for head coaches of the men's and women's teams at each school in the tournament. Both years, University of Dayton won in this imaginary matchup, which helped AAUW look astute when Dayton scored some surprising upsets.
This year, it decided to look at the pay gap between graduates in part to mix things up a bit, with Dayton in the tournament again. In addition, there was a new data source available that they wanted to highlight, in the form of the Department of Education's College Scorecard. Finally, Maatz says, this year's approach was an effort to make the bracket more personal to people.
"As much as we have our own home team bias, it's also good to see how our home team is performing outside of athletics," she says. Schools may not have as much control over the pay gap between their male and female graduates as they do in what they pay their coaches. But Maatz argues there is still plenty schools can do to help their female students and graduates succeed, from holding negotiation workshops to making sure academic departments like technology and engineering are welcoming to them.
It's worth noting that AAUW used the NCAA's bracket, rather than seeding the 64 schools based on their pay gap, and that many of the calculations match up closely, sometimes being decided by a tenth of a point. But that goes with the territory, Maatz says. "This is March Madness. There are one-point wins in overtime."