In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, former President Barack Obama said, “I cannot stand it when people reduce complex ideas to some simplistic catchphrase” [1]. Ironically, President Obama did just that during his presidency: he championed a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stating that, on average, a woman earns 79 cents for every dollar a man makes [2].

The report compares men’s median earnings to women’s, and consequently fails to include several crucial factors, such as life choices, education, experience, or even the number of hours worked. Consequently, it paints an overly simplified picture of a complicated issue. While it is clear that a gender-based wage gap does exist, these misleading and oversimplified statistics have consistently failed to solve the problem at hand.

The US Labor Department report contributes to this misunderstanding by omitting crucial factors, such as a worker’s experience and personal choices. Today, for example, men dominate the highest-paying jobs while women occupy those which pay the lowest [3]. The report itself states that women comprise only 26% of the highest-paid professions with a median wage gap of 19 cents, and 64% of the lowest-paid professions with a median wage gap of 12 cents. The real issue, then, is not that women on average earn less than men, but that they don’t go into high-paying professions. This results in a reduced median income compared to men.

The report also fails to consider that women often dedicate considerably more time to their children and families, often having to compromise workplace success as a result. This, again, inhibits our ability to understand the social and personal stigma that might compel women to make these choices. Clearly,  discussion must shift towards exploring the reasons behind women’s choices, rather than creating redundant legislation that is impractical—and in some cases, detrimental.

President Obama’s executive order that federal contractors are not allowed to “retaliate” against employees who discuss their wages with one another is a prime example of an unnecessary and dangerous law inspired by the “79 cents” statistic. This executive order, while attempting to solve the wage-gap issue, overlooks numerous negative consequences; for instance, an office environment where employees are encouraged to discuss their wages risks creating a workplace plagued by jealousy and conflict, where personal financial information can be jeopardized [4].

Furthermore, misuse of these misleading statistics in order to further parties’ political interests and agendas leads to a misinformed and frustrated public. For example, the entire Democratic establishment, including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, used the “79 cents” report to appeal to female voters across the country in the 2016 Presidential elections. While Hillary Clinton won 54% of the female vote, this was hardly impressive, given Trump’s many sexist comments throughout the campaign [5]. Clearly, the public outright rejected the “79 cents” narrative; the very report that encouraged voters to accept the wage-gap narrative only added to voters’ distrust in government institutions and the establishment. In today’s hostile political environment, where one party denies gender-based wage discrimination, and the other party claims that a woman makes 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, the average voter is stuck between two extreme choices, neither of which reflect the truth [6].

Ultimately, statistics like the “79 cents” report, however well-intentioned, fail to reduce the wage-gap because of their overly simplified nature. They are prone to manipulation. The only way to eliminate this disparity of earnings between men and women is to ask the right questions and to re-examine our approach to the gender-based wage gap. Instead of implementing surface-level measures, the focus of legislation should be towards developing an education system that, from the beginning, encourages women to go into higher-paying fields. Governments should also introduce legislations that encourage both parents to play an active role in child-rearing. For example, the Liberal government is planning to stretch maternity leave to 18 months for both parents [7].

Sincerity and honesty in the presentation of facts is needed to truly bring to light the actual discrepancy of wage. Until then, reports like the “79 cents” will continue to be misused, and outright dismissed, while doing nothing to solve the issue of the wage gap.

Illustration: Amy Yan

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