White House Press Secretary Jay Carney doesn't like when you apply the same logic governing wages in private businesses to his employer's own payroll. As President Obama prepares to sign an executive order addressing the gender gap in federal contractors' wages, critics have pointed out that female White House staffers make an average of 88 cents for every dollar male staffers earn.
Carney protested that this was misleading, because women and men holding similar positions at the White House are paid equivalent salaries. Because women outnumber men at the lowest levels of the employee chain, however, the average female salary at the White House is lower.
Carney is right: It is misleading to average the salaries of men and women in widely varying positions and then use this as evidence that women are being discriminated against. That women disproportionately make up lower-paid positions may point to some broad, systematic gender bias, past or present, but it doesn't equal outright sexist behavior on an employer's part.
It's good that Carney acknowledges this as far as the White House is concerned, because the Obama administration and many others are quick to gloss over nuance like this when talking about the wage gap in general. We frequently hear that American women make only 77 cents for every dollar men make, but this is based on data that fail to account for women's work histories and life choices. It aggregates the earnings of women in all positions and compares this average against the earnings of all men.
As The Washington Post's Nia-Malika Henderson points out, "It's hard to find a study that finds no pay disparity in what men and women make,"—several studies place it closer to 84 cents on the dollar. But the gap is neither as wide nor as easily reduced as many would make it out to be. Though there are surely some occupations and companies where women get paid less out of plain old sexism, the wage gap overall seems a product of large but less nefarious structural and cultural forces.
These forces are certainly worth talking about. Why do women still flock to lower-paying fields and positions? How can women, men, and companies make having children less detrimental to women's careers? Why does the wage gap widen for older women even when they don't have children? Etcetera. But trotting out misleading statistics about women's wages not only fails to address these issues adequately, it actively works against addressing them. It makes things too simplistic, and thus given to simplistic solutions.
This week, Senate Democrats are (again) considering the "Paycheck Fairness Act," which would require employers to submit pay information annually for all employees. How will this help shrink the wage gap? No one's been too specific about that. But, hey, what's a little more bureaucracy when there's the spectacle of government action to uphold?
The bill would also make employers liable to civil actions for pay discrimination. Republicans in Congress say this is unnecessary, because gender-based discrimination is already illegal. But a vote against the bill is a good way to get painted as complicit in the Republican "war on women," so you can see why backing the lackluster legislation is a good political move for Democrats. Henderson notes in the Post that states where Democrats are running close races this year seem to contain Democrats most concerned about addressing the wage gap immediately.