When the White House announced this week that the president had signed executive orders beefing up efforts to fight pay disparity between men and women, the president's men were caught flat-footed when a skeptical press challenged both the 77 cents on the dollar meme and the White House's own 88 cents of the dollar reality.
“Today, the average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns in 2014," said President Obama at the White House on Tuesday. "That’s an embarrassment. It is wrong.”
But the White House was promptly embarrassed by having to defend its own wage gap. Women at the White House earn just 88 cents on the dollar of a man's earnings. White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged this, but he argued that when you control for key differences the gap disappears.
"We have two deputy chiefs of staff, one man and one woman, and they make the same salary," Carney said, The Hill reported. "We have 16 department heads. Over half of them are women, all of whom make the same salary as their male counterparts."
"What I can tell you is that we, as an institution here, have aggressively addressed this challenge, and obviously, though, at the 88 cents that you cite, that is not a hundred, but it is better than the national average," Carney said. "And when it comes to the bottom line that women who do the same work as men have to be paid the same, there is no question that that is happening here at the White House at every level."
But critics were quick to point out that controlling for differences is precisely what the 77 cents on the dollar figure fails to do, and why it is, in fact, misleading. The Washington Post's fact checker Glenn Kessler promptly awarded the president two Pinocchios for the statement because the 77 number accounts for nothing, even though men and women take vastly different career paths.
Kessler noted that women who do not get married earn 96 cents on the dollar, one variable alone nearly erasing the gap.
On a CNN panel, responding to the contradiction, anchor John King called this a case of "do as I say, not as I do." In response to King, Bloomberg writer Margaret Talev responded that Carney's defense that details matter should apply to the nation as a whole. "That's the same way the national numbers are aggregated," she said. "Critics of the 77 cents number say the same thing: it's more complicated than it looks."
"June O’Neill, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, has noted that the wage gap is affected by a number of factors," Glenn Kessler wrote, "including that the average woman has less work experience than the average man and that more of the weeks worked by women are part-time rather than full-time. Women also tend to leave the work force for periods in order to raise children, seek jobs that may have more flexible hours but lower pay and choose careers that tend to have lower pay."
But job choices extend beyond career patterns to career choice itself. Back in February, Christina Hoff Summers challenged the meme in the Daily Beast, pointing out, among other things, that the most remunerative college majors are overwhelmingly taken by male students.
Of the top 10 most remunerative majors, Summers notes, women do best in pharmacy studies at 52 percent. The average of the other nine — all some form of engineering or computer science — is 85 percent male.