77 cents on the dollar? The truth about the gender wage gap

by Denise Noe

It is often said the average woman earns only 77 cents to the average man’s dollar. In President Barack Obama’s January 2014 State of the Union address, he claimed women “make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.”[1] The National Organization for Women website states, “Women are paid on average only 77 percent of what men are paid.”[2]

These statistics make it sound like employers routinely discriminate against women. Unfortunately, these statistics compare apples and oranges – the wages of women working full-time and men working full-time — rather than comparing men and women with the same education and training working at the same jobs for the same time periods and the same weekly hours.

Part of the gender wage gap is because there are still some jobs requiring more physical strength than most women possess – garbage collector, construction worker, lumberjack, coal miner, and the like — and these “muscle jobs” tend to be physically dangerous and, because of their dangers, highly paid. According to U.S. Department of Labor Statistics for 1992-1996, “Women incurred less than one-tenth of the job-related fatal injuries and about one-third of the nonfatal injuries and illnesses that required time off to recuperate in 1992-1996. During this period women accounted for just under 50 percent of the nation’s workforce.”[3]

I once talked with a man who had worked cleaning windows. He fell off a ladder – ripping a foot from his leg! Luckily, surgeons reattached the foot. But it was obviously a traumatic experience for him. Part of the wage gap favoring men is due to the death and injury gap favoring women.

Another factor in the wage gap is that women enjoy greater freedom to move in and out of the labor market. That women spend more time out of the paid workforce does not necessarily indicate male oppression but the generosity and caring of men who take on the sole breadwinner role so the women in their lives can take time out from paid work. Indeed, men often take physically dangerous jobs to support the women and children in their lives.

In the case of parents of newborns, fathers are less apt to parent full-time not because of male delicacy about changing diapers and cleaning spit-up—after all men are the majority of garbage collectors and sewer workers—but is due to women being less open to supporting househusbands than men are to supporting housewives. Another reason stay-at-home moms outnumber stay-at-home dads is that the former can breastfeed. Finally, for at least some, only a “muscle job” will bring in enough to support the family.

The notorious 77 cents on the dollar figure comes from comparing full-time male workers with full-time female workers, a raw comparison that takes no account of skills, training, background, type of job, time at the job or even exact hours worked since some full-time workers put in more time than others. Thus, the garbage collector who has been at his job for a decade and puts in overtime is compared to the receptionist who got her job last week. Such apples and oranges comparisons are largely meaningless.

A meaningful comparison must be one that compares male and female workers who have similar training and skills, work the same jobs for the same lengths of time, and put in the same hours. Mark J. Perry observes that the Consad Research Corporation took these factors into account and concluded in a 2009 report for the US Department of Labor, “Statistical variables that includes those variables has produced results that collectively account for between 65.1 and 76.4% of a raw gender wages gap of 20.4%, and thereby leave an adjusted gender wage gap that is between 4.8 and 7.1%.”[4] That report elaborated, “women may value non-wage benefits more than men do, and as a result prefer to take a greater portion of their compensation in the form of health insurance and other fringe benefits.”[5] Thus, comparing wages misleads since female workers may select jobs that have lower wages but better benefits while males do the reverse.

Brooks Jackson writes that the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found that comparing men and women within the “same occupational grouping” found that women earn “much more than 77 percent of their male counterparts’ median weekly earnings.”[6] The IWPR study stated, “Female bookkeeping clerks and stock clerks actually made slightly more than their male counterparts” while registered nurses averaged only 4 cents to the dollar less, elementary and middle school teachers 8 cents less, and police officers one penny less to the male dollar. [7]

Jackson quotes Pamela Coukos, a senior program adviser at the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs as stating, “Economists generally attribute about 40% of the pay gap to discrimination – making about 60% explained by differences between workers or their jobs.”

In a foreword to the Consad report, the U.S. Department of Labor commented that take into account such relevant factors leaves “an adjusted wage gap that is between 4.8 and 7.1 percent.”[8]

The majority of gender wage differences is due to factors like differing skills and training, choices of occupation, and time spent on the job. However, as Jackson points out, a “Bush-era study” by Consad stated, “The research points to some remaining anti-female bias by employers.”[9]

Christina Hoff Sommers wrote that a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) of “male and female college graduates one year after graduation” found that after controlling for the sort of relevant factors discussed in this essay, “the wage gap narrowed to only 6.6 cents.”[10] Sommers continues that one reason for the remaining gap is that women tend to possess “inferior negotiating skills.”[11] Nevertheless, Sommers believes it unlikely the true gender wage gap is “zero” but that “residual bias against women in the workplace” continues.

There is still work to be done to better women’s position in the workplace. Sometimes differing jobs are not the result of employee choices but of employers assigning people to sex-stereotyped positions. The AAUW pointed to a court case brought against the Lucky Stores chain in which “plaintiffs argued that the differences were the result of discrimination, while the employer argued that the differences resulted from women’s and men’s choices.”[12] The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, ruling that “sex discrimination was the standard operating procedure at Lucky with respect to placement, promotion, movement to full-time positions, and the allocation of additional hours.”[13]

Both employees and employers should take note of such cases and work to eliminate such tendencies.

The AAUW notes that greater pay transparency may work toward eliminating gender bias. Private employers are apt to discourage and even prohibit employees from even discussing wage information; such secrecy may hide unfair inequities. The AAUW explains, “Transparency does not mean that everyone must know everyone else’s salary. Rather, simply by making salary ranges for specific job titles available to all employees, employers provide workers with information that puts wages in context and helps them assess the fairness of their earnings.”[14]

Another step toward fairness is to recognize that women should learn to accurately assess what their skills are worth and encourage them to develop better negotiating skills. There are salary negotiation workshops that women might be wise to attend.

It is also important that women make choices free of bias but according to their own talents and preferences. We can all work to encourage them to consider areas of study outside traditional areas.

We also need to recognize that the biologically based differences between the sexes, such as the male advantage in physical strength and the uniquely female ability to get pregnant and give birth, will mean that some differences are here to stay. Thus, we would be better off to just stop making raw comparisons that are inevitably misleading and encourage a misguided sense of bitterness.

Things are good for American womanhood and getting even better. There is still work to be done but much to celebrate.




Denise Noe is a severely and multiply disabled woman who lives in Georgia. She has had articles, essays, short stories, and poems published. Her ebook, “Suffer Little Children,” about true crimes against young people, can be found at BuzzwordBooks.com.



3[2] Mark Twain Quotations – Statistics. http://www.twainquotes.com/Statistics.html

[2] Jacobson, Louis. Politifact.. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2014/jan/29/barack-obama/barack-obama-state-union-says-women-make-77-cents

[4] “Women Deserve Equal Pay.” National Organization for Women. http://now.org/resource/women-deserve-equal-pay-factsheet/

[5] “Women Experience Fewer Job-related injuries and Deaths than Men.” Issues in Labor Statistics. U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.” July 1998.

[6] Perry, Mark J. “2009 DOL report found that gender wage differences are explained by individual choices of male and female workers.” AEIhttp://www.aei.org/publication/2009-dol-report-found-that-gender-wage-gap-differences-are-explained-by-individual-choices-of-male-and-female-workers.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jackson, Brooks. “Obama’s 77-Cent Exaggeration.” The Wire. June 22, 2012. http://www.factcheck.org/2012/06/obamas-77-cent-exaggeration

[9] Ibid.

[10] “A Foreword by the Department of Labor.” “An Analysis of Reasons for the Disparity in Wages Between Men and Women.”

[11] Jackson, Brooks. “Obama’s 77-Cent Exaggeration.” The Wire. June 22, 2012. http://www.factcheck.org/2012/06/obamas-77-cent-exaggeration

[12] Sommers, Christina Hoff. “Wage Gap Myth Exposed – By Feminists.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christina-hoff-sommers/wage-gap_b_2073804.html

[13] Ibid.

[14] Corbett, Christianne and Hill, Catherine. “Graduating to a Pay Gap: The Earnings of Women and Men One Year after College Graduation.” AAUW.

[15] Ibid.


[16] Ibid.


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