The 59-cent fallacy

August 27, 1996|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- Opponents of the California Civil Rights Initiative hope that women will prove to be their ace in the hole. Women have the most to lose from the abolition of state preferences on race and gender grounds, they argue.

But this debate has been clouded by so much false information that it is difficult for facts to get a fair hearing. Feminists and liberals have based their pro-affirmative action argument on demonstrably erroneous numbers, which are carefully and neatly refuted by Michael Lynch and Katherine Post in the summer issue of The Public Interest.

We're all familiar with the 59-cents-on-the-dollar argument. Feminists have argued for years that women earn only 59 cents for every dollar men earn -- evidence, they conclude, that discrimination is afoot. But aggregate numbers provide very little useful information.

The so-called ''wage gap,'' which by 1995 amounted to 74 cents for women, compared with one dollar for men, is calculated by adding all the wages paid to women divided by all of the wages paid to men. It does not account for the many varied factors that contribute to wages, like seniority, education, continuous time in the work force and the choices individuals make about their careers.

Well, counter the feminists and advocates of government preferences, Mr. Lynch and Ms. Post have actually taken account of education in the data, and even when you control for education, you still find a gap between the earnings of men and women. In 1994, for example, women with bachelor's degrees earned only 76 cents on the dollar compared with men. Women with master's degrees earned 79 cents, and those with doctorates earned 85 cents on the dollar.

But comparing levels of education is not enough. Someone who holds a degree in education or ethnic studies does not earn as much as the person who holds a degree in engineering or business. More than one-third of the bachelor's degrees earned by women in 1992 were in communications, education, English literature, the health professions and the visual and performing arts. Only 17 percent (or roughly half the proportion) of the men's degrees were in those fields. Twenty-six percent of the men received degrees in business, and 13 percent earned degrees in engineering (compared to just 2 percent of women).

The role of choice

Individuals make choices about their lives based on many factors, not just monetary compensation. Study after study has found that most women tend to structure their lives to fit raising children into the mix. That means several things.

In the first place, it means that women tend to take time off from work at much higher rates than men do. A 1984 census study found that while only 1.6 percent of men's work years are spent out of the work force, 14.7 percent of women's are. That eats into women's seniority on the job.

The Department of Labor has calculated that in 1995, 55 percent of women worked 40 or more hours per week, compared with 75 percent of men. Sixteen percent of men worked more than 55 hours per week, compared with only 6 percent of women.

Women also tell pollsters (hold onto your hats) that they do not have the same aspirations as men. While 44.6 percent of men in a Korn/Ferry survey said they would like to be a CEO some day, only 14.1 percent of women agreed.

OK, but what about the women who choose a full-time career and are just as hard-charging as men? Don't they continue to face a glass ceiling?

No. The wage gap between men and women almost disappears when age, education and continuous time in the work force are factored in. June O'Neill, formerly of the Congressional Budget Office, has found that childless women between 27 and 33 earned 98 percent as much as men with the same characteristics.

In just over two decades, women have increased their share of MBAs, MDs and JDs by more than 400 percent. They now account for 52.8 percent of all professionals and 48.1 percent of managerial/executive positions.

To cite the wage gap as proof of the need for affirmative action is misleading and demeaning.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/27/96

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