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Political Horizons: Equal pay statistics can be misleading

April 2, 2017
By Mark Ballard
Originally Posted on The Advocate

Louisiana conservatives last week gleefully traded an online posting that claimed Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards paid the 43 women working in his office less than the 23 men employed there.

Edwards and his wife, Donna, had headlined an “Equal Pay Summit” and told the mostly female audience that the median pay for Louisiana women is 66 cents for every dollar a man earns.

Using the same math, the Washington Free Beacon pricked Edwards for paying women on his staff 82 cents for each dollar earned by men.

The posting was more about tarnishing a blue star in a red landscape than about the equal pay fight in Louisiana, as the Legislature has rejected 28 equal pay bills over the past decade and is likely to stop the four measures to be discussed in the session that begins April 10.

Edwards set his staff to condemning the post as nothing more than a hit job. The Free Beacon, an arm of conservative advocacy group Center for American Freedom, is based in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. It used in its calculation every clerk and part-timer — along with some agencies that while under the governor, are not part of his direct staff, a review of the pay records show.

But the posting underscored how debate over the issue has been relegated to a single factoid.

For as long as Equal Pay supporters have argued that the 60-something statistic indicates gender discrimination, the business community has countered that the number shows only that women gravitate towards more social services work, which pays less. Men fill the higher-paying employment in finance and engineering. Women more often seek jobs with flexibility because of homemaking duties. And what about the oil industry? Those numbers skew statistics but they don’t prove discrimination, opponents say.

All of that is true, said Beth Willinger, the Tulane University professor, now retired, who annually compiles U.S. Census Bureau data into reports the politicos quote.

Median is just the midpoint in the range of amounts paid by gender, meaning half of the women made less than 68 cents (the number in the latest report) and half made more when men’s median is a dollar. Willinger said the median is a good general indicator of a disparity. But what the use of that number in self-righteous monologues really proves is how few people have thumbed past the front page.

Her latest report, released in March, still shows gender segregation in higher-paying trades. For instance, Louisiana has few female electricians, only 122 pipefitters and 199 carpenters. About 90 percent of the workers employed by the oil and gas drilling industry are male, and those salaries average $75,067.

Willinger’s report also documents that women make up 55 percent of managers. Their median income is $45,034 versus a man’s $70,525. Women with bachelor’s degrees earn $19,741 less than men with the same educational attainment. And fewer women, by far, earn more than $100,000 a year: 28,558 top earners are women, while 129,809 are men.

“All these discrepancies can’t be explained away,” Willinger said.

State Rep. Helena Moreno agrees that the 60-something number often sends debate down rabbit trails that avoid the real issue. Gender pay disparity across occupational, industrial, educational, racial and regional lines indicates something is not right.

Since joining the Legislature in 2010, the New Orleans Democrat has been pressing legislation to address that disparity. An Equal Pay law is the first step towards establishing that pay discrimination will not be tolerated, just as the Voting Rights Act helped put an end to hurdles to the ballot box for African Americans, Moreno says. But a new law alone won’t address the underlying causes.

Efforts need to be made to teach women negotiating skills, to urge girls into math and science curricula, and to change traditional training that separates men and women, she said.

For instance, in Louisiana prisons, women inmates have four job-training programs, including upholstery. Male convicts can choose between about 10 trades, Moreno said.

“It has to be a big-package approach,” Moreno said.

In this holistic effort, Moreno is joined by her nemesis over the years: Renee Amar, director of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry’s small-business section.

Amar says she testifies against Equal Pay year after year, not because women are paid less — “nobody’s salary should be determined by gender” — but because dictating pay practices won’t improve the overall compensation picture for women and will hurt businesses.

Many petrochemical refineries and manufacturers have a lot of openings for high-paying jobs, and more women should be trained for that work, she said.

“That’s the avenue you really need to go if you want to advance women’s pay,” Amar said.