Let’s Leave 77 Cents in the Past

Last Tuesday during his annual State of the Union address, President Obama outlined a plan to create more jobs, institute tax and immigration reforms, and develop America into a cleaner and more energy independent country, both with and without Congress.  He also spoke about the wage gap, saying of the difference between men and women,

“Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work.”

This is not an entirely new idea; President Obama used it during his re-election campaign in 2012.

While at first glance it seems like the president is using an old statistic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women still made an average of 77% of a man’s yearly income in 2012, a ratio that has not changed since 2007.

Although Obama uses a legitimate fact from a trusted government agency, the idea that all women make 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes in yearly wages is more than a little misleading. 

A study by the National Women’s Law Center stated that “low-paying occupations… typically have a higher concentration of minority and female workers as compared to other, higher paying jobs.”

The fact that lower-paying jobs consist mostly of female and minority employees is not an accident.  Most of the highest paying jobs, according to the Washington Post, are in science and technology fields.  The National Science Foundation reported that the number of women’s degrees in science and math fields is much lower than men’s.

In an article for the New York Times, Eileen Pollack explained how one of the biggest factors that stopped her from pursuing a PhD in Physics was the lack of encouragement from her professors and her peers.  

From a young age, women are taught that science and math are “masculine” subjects.  For a woman to overcome the stigma on women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), she has to surround herself by men who did not face the same “science is not for you” treatment and get paid less than them, even when she has exactly the same qualifications (as shown in a 2012 study published by Yale University, and in a 2010 study by the American Association of University Women).  Women making 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes is not just a cause of inequality, but an effect of gender bias.

However, not all women make 77% of a man’s yearly income.  

Illustration: Tina Tran
Illustration: Tina Tran

The National Women’s Law Center continued on to report that in 2012, the typical African-American woman who worked full time made 83 cents for every dollar that a white, American woman made, and Hispanic women made even less at 69 cents.  To group all women together and say that they all make 77% of a man’s yearly wages ignores the different struggles that women of color face, independent of their gender.

It is easy to say “all women” face the same issues in exactly the same way — from gender bias in the workplace to street harassment — but it’s also wrong.  

Women of color are treated in ways that white women never will be, and even then, within the category of “women of color,” black women are treated differently from Asian women, who are treated differently from Latina women, and so on.  The whole idea of “women make 77% of a man’s annual wages” oversimplifies the problem at hand and leaves women of color behind in the fight to end pay inequality.

Making sure that “77 cents” doesn’t happen again is only part of the solution. The rest of it is making sure that all women, especially women of color, do not make less than men — or other women.


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