The real meaning of the Information Age seems to lie in the speed with which the entire world can laugh at mistakes made in public.
I didn’t watch the Miss Universe USA pageant last weekend, but I had barely started my Monday when the answer Marissa Powell, Miss Utah, gave to a question about gender pay equity had been gleefully thrust in front of me several times.
As the week went by, I was struck by what Powell’s embarrassment said about modern society, both bad and good.
The bad was that people everywhere seemed amused by the embodiment of a stereotype — the beauty queen with less than average intelligence. Stereotypes are, of course, generally false surface characterizations that ignore nuance, deeper scrutiny, compassion or truth. We abhor them when they involve race or ethnicity, but laugh like our ancestors at minstrel shows when we think we have cultural license.
The good was that Powell ended up with more publicity and fame than if she had won the competition. She soon hit the late night talk show circuit. P.T. Barnum, the inventor of the modern beauty pageant concept, would have appreciated the alchemy of turning a gaffe into publicity.
The more important take-away about life in 2013, however, is that the Information Age has become less about real information and more about easy, yet incomplete, answers.
The question NeNe Leakes posed to Miss Utah was, “A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?”
The “recent report” came from the Pew Research Center. It was, in a literal sense, factual, just as it is a fact that Powell gave an incomprehensible answer to the question.
What would have been a good answer? That takes a bit more probing through the nuances in the data, but it inevitably leads to one answer: We should be more concerned about the breakup of the traditional family.
That’s not the obvious answer, which has to do with the need to pay women the same as men for equal work. It would be hard to find someone who doesn’t believe that, and it would be foolish to argue that discrimination doesn’t persist in some cases, for whatever reason.
It is not, however, as bad as the Census data used in the Pew study would indicate, which is that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Strip away differences in education levels and choices to pursue lower-paying professions, and the gap closes to about 91 cents on the dollar.
Look closer still, and the gap may not only be disappearing, but moving in reverse. Three years ago, a researcher named James Chung found that in the largest U.S. cities, single, childless women under the age of 30 earned on average 8 percent more than their male peers.
This is in line with other studies that show women earning more college degrees than men. In the class of 2013 this ranges from 61.6 percent of all associate’s degrees to 51.6 percent of Ph.D’s.
Given time, the gap may disappear entirely. Lost in all of this, however, is the welfare of the next generation.
About 40 percent of all children these days are born out of wedlock, despite studies that show the disadvantages they will face, and despite overwhelming evidence that married couples earn more and enjoy higher living standards than single mothers. Studies have found a destructive downward cycle involving young boys, in particular, who grow up to repeat the cycle of creating, then abandoning, children.
The best answer to the question Powell received is that we are focusing on the wrong data. Pay equity, in real terms, is disappearing, but the pursuit of paychecks over traditional families — among both genders — is causing children to suffer from neglect. And we are failing young men, who in turn fail to take responsibility for the children they create.
That’s a lot for judges of a beauty contest to handle, but it shouldn’t be too deep for any age that lays claim to endless information.
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