Yes, Virginia, there is a wage gap

Those wacky dames at the Independent Women’s Forum are at it again.

The I.W.F., for readers who don’t know their right-wing think tanks, is a gang of women who specialize in bashing feminism. Invading every part of the mass media, from op-ed pages to Sunday pundit television, the ladies of the I.W.F. spare no effort in getting their anti-feminist message out.

What is it the anti-feminists want us to know? Before the I.W.F. came along, anti-feminists paid their rent mainly by claiming that date rape was too rare to deserve the attention feminists gave it. Several big-name anti-feminists, like Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia, began their careers this way. According to them, if studies show that date rape is all too common, the problem isn’t rapists, but those lying feminists!

In its heyday, this tactic launched best-sellers, but it has since grown stale: too many government studies, from decidedly non-feminist outfits like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, have confirmed that date-rape isn’t a feminist myth.

Sensing a losing horse, the wily women of the I.W.F. are now shifting their bets to a different pony. They still say date-rape statistics are a myth, but they’re spending a lot more time and media firepower arguing that the wage gap is a myth, too.

The wage gap, readers will recall, is the government statistic which tells us that women get paid about 76 cents for every dollar men earn. But now the I.W.F. is touting their new study which, they say, shows that the wage gap is nearly zero. Intrepid I.W.F. workers have tirelessly argued this on television, in every newspaper and magazine that will print them, and any other outlets they can find. They’ve even bought ads in some college papers so they can spread the news that way.

So how did they conduct this miraculous study, which reduced the wage gap from 76 percent to practically nothing? Mainly, they decided who not to look at. They don’t look at any mothers or fathers; they don’t look at anyone under 27; they don’t look at anyone over 33. Once 90 percent of the U.S. population is excluded from consideration, it turns out that the wage gap disappears.

What the I.W.F. study mainly shows is that you can prove anything with statistics – so long as you pick your sample carefully enough.

Why does it matter that the I.W.F. studied only young people? Because the effects of discrimination, many economists believe, are cumulative, meaning that they build up over time. If a young woman misses one job offer due to sexism, that one small loss usually won’t have a big effect. But dozens of small losses like it, over the course of a whole career – that can add up to a big wage gap.

That’s what the economist Robert Wood and his colleagues found in a study of women lawyer’s careers. One year after graduation, an average female lawyer will earn 93 percent of what her male classmates pull in – a fairly small wage gap, relatively speaking. But 15 years later, she’ll only be earning 60 percent of average male wages. The wage gap starts out small and gets bigger over time.

By refusing to look at anyone over 33, the I.W.F. cleverly kept themselves from having to face the reality of the wage gap. They’re like someone stuck in a jungle, insisting that as long as he keeps his eyes shut, the lion can’t really exist. It’s possible that such a person will succeed in fooling himself; but he sure won’t fool the lion.

That “see no evil” strategy is how the I.W.F. attacks most problems, actually. Rape is too common? The problem is feminist statistics! Women paid too little for their work? The I.W.F. performs some magic with statistics and – presto! – women and men are being paid the same amount!

The problem, of course, is that date-rape won’t stop happening because anti-feminists don’t want to admit it’s widespread. Statistical trickery about equal wages sounds great in a soundbite, but it doesn’t put more money into women’s paychecks.

Worse, by minimizing the problems to nearly-nothing, the I.W.F. and other anti-feminists make solutions harder to come by. How much less likely is it that Congress will ever approve a pay equity law, which would require “women’s jobs” to be paid what they’re worth, if the smart ladies of the I.W.F. are busy proclaiming that women already have equal pay?

What’s most disturbing about the I.W.F., however, is not their tortured arguments or dubious statistics. What’s frustrating is how eagerly the I.W.F.’s bad logic is accepted and repeated all over the country. From the op-ed pages of our major dailies, to the cranky opinions on Internet discussion boards, it seems all of America is eager to look away and pretend that sexism don’t exist.