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Pay Gap Deniers

Next week is the anniversary of the signing of the Equal Pay Act.

Steve Tobak, a Silicon Valley consultant, reassured his Fox Business audience that “The Gender Pay Gap is a Myth,” recycling a 2009 report commissioned by the Bush Department of Labor arguing that women’s choices, not discrimination, account for the wage gap between men and women.

Next week is the anniversary of the signing of the Equal Pay Act. Is it time to declare victory? The standard pay gap measure, which greatly exaggerates women’s economic equality, is that women now earn 77 cents for each dollar earned by men. Maybe so, argue Pay Gap Deniers, but that’s due to women’s choices, not to gender discrimination.

To this age-old argument, I have two responses. The first is that choice and discrimination are not mutually exclusive. The second is that those who make choice arguments are more likely than your average Joe to discriminate against women at work.

The first point is simple: choice and discrimination are not mutually exclusive. If we tarry even for a minute, that’s obvious. Consider the example of a black man, under Jim Crow, walking up to two water fountains, one marked “Colored” and the other marked “Whites Only.” He chooses to drink from the former. For sure he made a choice. But that choice was made in the context of discrimination. His choice probably reflected not that he preferred the fountain he drank from but that he preferred not to get lynched.

Let me be the first to say that mothers are not in danger of lynching. They are in danger of something potentially devastating, though: poverty. Forget the wage gap for a minute. What is the face of poverty in the United States? A mother and her child.

It’s comforting, but untrue, to believe that the well-documented “motherhood penalty” stems from mothers’ choices. And it’s true that mothers, in most cases, chose to have children. What they didn’t choose is the discrimination that often accompanies that decision.

Women earn less than men even when they work the same number of hours, a gap that exists across every level of educational attainment. Why? One reason is that motherhood triggers the strongest form of gender discrimination. Mothers are 79 percent less likely to be hired, only half as likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards than identical women without children.

Often it’s not subtle. “We don’t get people like you down here in Monroe, Louisiana, who have as much telecom experience and advertising agency experience that you do with a Master’s degree from Northwestern,” one Louisiana employer told one mother. “But you’ve got a lot of personal distractions right now; you have a new baby at home and I don’t think you have the fire in you to be one of my leaders,” according to Krull v. Centurytel, 829 F. Supp. 2d 474 (W.D. La. 2011). The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Here’s the question. While this kind of blatant job discrimination continues apace, why does every reporter who calls me up for a comment on the upcoming anniversary of the Equal Pay Act ask me to respond to the claim that the pay gap is about women’s choices, not discrimination?

A recent study by Tamar Kricheli Katz on “Choice-Based Discrimination Against Gay Men, the Obese and Mothers,” found that choice rhetoric sharply increases job discrimination. Katz had people read either an essay about choice, or an essay about how choices occur within constraints. Then she gave people identical resumes, one but not the other a mother, and found that only 29 percent of those who read the essay that stressed choice said they would hire the mother, while 63 percent of those who read the essay that stressed constraints said they would. The “choice” crowd recommended $6,429 less in salary for mothers, while the “constraints” crowd offered mothers $5,105 more than they offered to identical women without children. The “choice” crowd also rated mothers as less competent.

Reporters, take note. It’s time to treat Pay Gap Deniers as what they are: apologists for on-going gender discrimination.

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