Monday, May 11, 2015

How Large is the So-Called Gender Gap?

Last time I introduced the idea of a psycho fact, information that has been so frequently and commonly passed along that it is accepted as true without the need for further investigation or proof.  It falls into the category of “everyone knows that” because everyone says it or hears it so often.  The textbook example is the idea that we use only a small fraction of our brains and have so much untapped potential.  (This notion is a staple among the self-help gurus and motivational speaker crowd.)

Another bit of information that has been repeated so many times that it has become accepted as fact is that a woman is paid only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, usually implying that this is true for exactly the same job even when age, education, experience, and all other factors are considered.  Related to this is the idea that men outnumber women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields due both to societal pressures portraying these fields as unfeminine and to a belief by some that women have less aptitude in these areas.

The most recent challenge to the first idea appeared in Forbes as an in-depth examination of the employment and salary data from the UK, which shows, when comparing all male workers to all female workers, a similar gap to that found in the US; and it explains why the UK Statistics Authority characterizes this conclusion as “highly misleading.”  They emphasize the need for accurate statistics as a guide to government policy.  To do that “we need to know how much of that [gap] is because of choices that people make over working hours, what job they do, the flexibility they might prefer over pay and so on, and then see what’s left which might be the result of direct discrimination.”  Unless such a careful comparison is made, the numbers are worthless in guiding policy decisions.

Digging deeper into the data, the problems are clarified a bit.  “Given the society we do have, rather than the one that some of us might like, it’s really no surprise at all that more women work part time than men, what with juggling child care duties. And it’s also no surprise at all that part timers make less per hour than full timers.”  Some data actually contradicts the premise showing that women working part time actually make 3.4 % more than men do, but this is offset by the fact that 4 times as many women opt for part time work.  This choice factor is only one component of a highly complex calculation and many other factors must be considered in order to make a fair comparison.  The simplistic comparison of all men to all women results in the popular, but “highly misleading,” 77-cents-due-primarily-to-discrimination conclusion that many in the US immediately jump to.

On the second point, a recent report from the PBS News Hour challenges the notion that STEM fields are unattractive to women and that they are therefore so greatly outnumbered by men.  “On closer inspection, it turns out that these ‘truths’ are nothing more than assumptions, and that these assumptions are inconsistent with the facts.”  They go on to tell about, and show graphically, some STEM fields and academic majors where women actually outnumber men.  Despite these facts, well-intentioned institutions continue to set up educational opportunities and other strategies to try to deprogram young girls from hating math.  It’s a solution to a non-problem, often funded by taxpayer dollars or charitable donations that could be better directed.

What is the purpose of the constant repetition of these two related psycho facts?  They likely remain popular because it places women, in general, in a victim status giving some the opportunity to vent and to take out their frustrations when things don’t seem to be going their way.  It is not affirming, not inspiring, not supportive, but it is not intended to be.  Rather, the purpose seems to be to give power to the rescuers who promise results through strikes, protests, or legislative action; rescuers whose main interest is not justice or equality, but retention and growth of their own political popularity and power, even if it is based on a poorly developed and “highly misleading” statistic.

That is not to say there is no discrimination at all, but those who rely on these sloppy generalizations choose to wallow in victimhood and be taken advantage of by manipulative public figures rather than taking responsibility for their own individual situations.

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