“The wage gap isn’t real.”

He said it with such assertion, a kind of conviction that made me want to punch him in the face. I tried to speak calmly.

“What do you mean the wage gap isn’t real?”

“It isn’t.”

“Saying the wage gap isn’t real is like saying socialization isn’t real.”

He looked at me like he had just learned I spoke a language he thought only he knew.

PSA: You can be feminist and be smart.

Here’s the deal. The way we talk about the wage gap is flawed, on both sides of the debate. But that doesn’t mean the wage gap doesn’t exist. It does, and it’s a problem. But if we want to find a solution, we have to correctly diagnose the disease.

Everybody’s heard that, on average, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. (Now 80 cents, according to a 2018 study.)

While this statistic is true, it doesn’t accurately reflect what’s happening when it comes to women and men in our economy.

The 77 cent statistic is on average, meaning the sum of all women’s wages is equal to 77% of the sum of all men’s wages. While this statistic reveals a glaring discrepancy between the wages of women and men, it does not take into consideration the fact that women occupy lower paying fields of work than men. This would explain (in part) why the sum of their earnings is less than the sum of men’s earnings.

What this means is that women don’t (necessarily) earn 33% less than a man working the exact same job, which is what a lot of media sources lead us to believe.

Yes, the 77 cent statistic is overused and overgeneralized. People assume it means something it doesn’t mean: that women earn 33% less than a man working the exact same job. But let’s take a second to talk about what else it doesn’t mean.

 

1. It Doesn’t Mean That The Gender Wage Gap Doesn’t Exist.

The wage gap exists, undeniably. Collectively, men in America are 33% more wealthy than women in America. And this adds up.

“According to The Center for American Progress, judging by the current wage gap, a woman misses out on $430,480 over the course of a 40-year career. An African-American woman would lose $877,480, while a Latina woman would lose $1,007,080 over the same period of time.” 

This is especially problematic when we consider that nearly half of U.S. moms were the main income-earners for their household. This puts not only the women who earn less than men at an economic disadvantage, but also the children and family members who depend on them.

 

2. It Doesn’t Mean We Get To Talk About The Wage Gap As If Acknowledging Its Reality Is Optional.

A survey of American professionals released in January found that only 61 percent of men believe the gender wage gap is real.

Let me rewrite that. A survey of American professionals released in January found that only 61 percent of men believe in 6th grade math.

The fact that a survey even asked this question shows how deeply down the rabbit hole we’ve gone.

We don’t get to “believe” or “not believe” in fact. The sum of women’s wages divided by the sum of men’s wages results in a ratio of 77:100. “Is it real” is not the question. “What causes it” is.

3. It Doesn’t Mean The Wage Gap Isn’t A Problem.

Yes, the 77 cent statistic doesn’t account for the fact that women occupy lower earning careers. But that shouldn’t serve as justification for the many socio-economic problems that contribute to this statistic.

We need to ask ourselves: why is it that women occupy lower paid positions? Why does the wage gap persist, even when we control for factors such as career field, job position, and education level? How do other women’s issues, such as sexual harassment in the workplace, contribute to the wage gap? And how can we combat the societal forces that keep women out of high paying positions and from negotiating for higher pay?

These are the questions we should be asking, instead of engaging in debate over whether something proven by numbers “exists”. If we continue to frame the discussion of the wage gap around belief and reality, we will never be able to address the intricacies of the problem.  Instead, we need to approach our dialogue about the wage gap as a three step process: identifying the factors that cause it, determining whether these factors are rooted in inequality, and if so, finding solutions to the problems we identify.