MSNBC host Rachel Maddow shut down a Republican strategist on Meet the Press yesterday who questioned her repetition of the famous statistic about the wage gap: “Women in this country still make 77 cents on the dollar for what men make.” Republican Alex Castellanos challenged Maddow on the point, saying “actually, if you start looking at the numbers, Rachel, there are lots of reasons for that.” Maddow said she didn’t want to hear about the reasons, and her fans online leapt to her defense. But even if they don’t want to hear it, Castellanos is (mostly) right.
“Don’t tell me the reasons,” Maddow responded when Castellanos challenged her. “Do women make less than men for doing the same work?”
“Men work an average of 44 hours a week, women work 41 hours a week,” Castellanos said. “Men go into professions like engineering, science and math that earn more. Women want more flexibility.”
Castellanos interrupts Maddow while she tries to make her point. He’s a man butting in while a woman tries to discuss a women’s issue. He condescendingly tells her, “I love how passionate you are.” (Ugh.) In other words, he acts like a total jerk. Predictably, Jezebel crowed that Castellanos was “obfuscating” and calls him “full of shit.” Mediaite praised Maddow for “smack[ing] down” Castellanos. But despite Maddow and friends’s shock and horror, and Castellanos’s very real rudeness, the facts are on his side
Maddow says “the reasons” aren’t important. But Castellanos’s point about the number of hours worked per week, and the desire for flexibility, is crucial. (Most measurements of the wage gap compare workers within the same profession, so while Castellanos is right to point out that men tend to go into higher-paying fields, that’s really a separate conversation. An important one, but not relevant here.) Stats about the wage gap compare full-time workers to other full-time workers, but all “full-time” means is more than 35 hours a week. Wouldn’t you expect someone putting in 50 hours a week to earn more than someone putting in 36 hours, whether they’re paid by the hour or on salary?
As Kay Hymowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week, men work considerably more hours than women, no matter how we arrange flex time and social policy to help accommodate women:
According to the department, almost 55% of workers logging more than 35 hours a week are men. In 2007, 25% of men working full-time jobs had workweeks of 41 or more hours, compared with 14% of female full-time workers. In other words, the famous gender-wage gap is to a considerable degree a gender-hours gap.
This is particularly true after women have children. In many cities, single childless women in their 20s actually out-earn their male peers by 8%. But when women have children, they cut back on their hours — sometimes temporarily, sometimes for longer. (One study of MBA graduates from the University of Chicago’s Booth School found that 10 years after graduation, only half of women with children were working full-time, compared with 95% of male graduates with children.) Either way, it makes a real difference. Other research has found that women who step away from the workforce for three years return to work at just 60% of their previous earning capacity.
Flex time, paid leave, and other family-friendly policies do a lot to help women and men navigate the tricky years of early parenthood. But as Hymowitz points out, countries like Sweden and Iceland have extremely generous and egalitarian leave policies, plus publicly funded child care. But the wage gap persists — 38% in Iceland, 15% in Sweden — and women consistently take more time off than men.
That’s not to say there’s no wage gap in America at all, or that discrimination doesn’t exist. But we can’t blame that hoary old 77-cents-to-the-dollar figure on evil Republican policies or on cruel business owners — or at least not nearly the majority of it.
When the American Association of University Women — a progressive organization active on the wage-gap issue — looked at the issue in 2007 [PDF], they controlled for college major, occupation, industry, sector, hours, work experience, education, GPA, age, race/ethnicity, religion, marital status, and number of children. They found a 5% gap between male and female wages a year out of college, and a 12% gap a decade out, when many women have had children.
Those unexplained gaps are important. But they’re not anything close to 23%. Rachel Maddow may not want to hear about the reasons, but they’re a crucial part of the story.