99 Cents

On the narrowest gender wage gap on record in the White House.

Last week, I wrote about what I think we Human-Americans could do to improve the quality of our discourse. More specifically, I wondered how we might elevate our online discourse, which seems at present to be the biggest driver of all other discourse. Even more specifically, I considered how we might do more to advance the conversations and debates we're having by, for starters, making sure we're even talking about the same thing.

Today I'm going to talk about one of the news stories I had on my mind as I began writing that piece, before it went sideways and became something else.

On July 1, the Biden administration released a report of White House salary data, as all administrations have been required to do since 1995. The report showed that the gender wage gap in the White House is the narrowest it's been since the US started tracking it, which I read as the narrowest it's ever been. I learned about this via The 19th, an independent nonprofit that reports on gender, politics, and policy, and that I think does so far more solidly than most.

Here's the 19th headline I saw: "Women in the Biden White House earn 99 cents for every $1 earned by men."

I can imagine and understand a lot of different initial reactions to that. Ninety-nine cents and $1 are not exactly the same. And if you walked into the past and went to a dollar store and picked up a little American flag and put it on the counter and told the clerk you only had 99 cents, he/she/they might say something like, "Well, I'm sorry, but 99 cents and $1 are not exactly the same. They're not equal, so you can't have the flag." Or he/she/they might say, "That's fine. It's only a penny. Here's your American flag. Have a great day." It could go either way.

But beyond that initial feeling are facts. And they matter. And while even all of those facts gathered together do not spell perfection, they do influence my feelings significantly enough to make me want to go back to that dollar store and buy some confetti just so I can take it back home and hang it up high somewhere and say, "Drop the confetti!" and then drop that shit all over the room and not even clean it up for two or three weeks.

In other words, I think this is a big deal. Here's why. As The 19th explicitly states in the article:

The gender wage gap is typically a “raw” figure that doesn’t adjust for experience, education, title or other factors. It simply looks at median wages. In past administrations, a lack of women in higher-paid positions widened the gap.

But in the Biden administration, there is a wider distribution of women across the pay scale, not just in the lowest paid jobs where they have typically been concentrated. About 56 percent of the senior staff in Biden’s White House are women, and about 36 percent come from racially and ethnically diverse communities.

For example, the two highest paid people in the Biden White House are women: Immigration policy adviser Molly Groom earns $185,656, and senior policy adviser for broadband Elizabeth Hone earns $183,164. The two lowest-paid are men, who both earn $36,000.

You could of course ignore all of that and say something like, "Is this supposed to be good news?! Equality! Equity!" Or: "Why not just make it even???" Or: "There shouldn’t by ANY pay gap😡." Or: "Not equal is not equal." Or: "Yeah, this doesn't make me feel any better. Should women be grateful that they *almost* earn as much as men? I don't think so." Or: "I wonder what the reason is for not paying both dollar for dollar. A single cent that a woman is denied is a travesty. Because women work just as hard if not harder than their male counterparts."

Those are actual comments in response to The 19th's Twitter and Instagram posts about this. A few others were more nuanced. But the majority shared the opinion of the less gracious version of the clerk at the dollar store: 99 cents and $1 are not exactly the same. So no flags or confetti for anyone.

I think that's an oversimplified way to look at it. And while I might be wrong, I don't think it's the way most people would look at it: i.e., I think most people can simultaneously (a) see the significance of this wider distribution of women in the highest boys’ club in the land and its direct relation to the narrowing of the gender pay gap, and (b) still want to see a more complete and widespread distribution and narrowing.

But I also think we're navigating this strange time where social media has become a barometer of public opinion for politicians, corporations, and the media, all of whom will gladly talk the talk and pander to whomever they must, as long as it serves their interest. In this case, that's not a bad thing. It might even help us to achieve that more perfect narrowing of the actual gender wage gap where it actually does exist. And I think that's clearly part of why the Biden administration is making "inclusiveness" and a slew of other buzzwords a priority in his administration—even if it's all for show, which I don't think it is, it still pushes the country further in the equality direction.

That's another reason I think this is a big deal. While one could accurately argue that what is effectively equal median pay in the White House doesn't help the women who are making "82 cents for every $1 earned by White men" (once again, on average, without adjusting "for experience, education, title or other factors"), I would argue that it kind of does help them, actually. Or at least it could. Maybe not immediately, but in the near future. If we've learned nothing else in the past six to 200 years, we should all have at least learned that the people we put in the White House affect what happens in the rest of the country. We have seen this writ large even absent the passing of new legislation, even when those individuals' influence came only via their words and tone.

To punctuate that point, here's more from The 19th:

For Biden, who said he supports raising the federal minimum wage, raising wages for care workers and the Paycheck Fairness Act, all moves that could improve gender parity, the numbers in his own White House could prove helpful to making that case, [Kelly Dittmar, the director of research and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics] said.

“The administration has been making a case for policy around gender equity,” she said. “It is easier to do that from a place of expertise and accountability — we’ve done it so you can do it, too.”

So what is the problem with oversimplified expressions on social media? The problem I see is that the general public also uses social media as a barometer of public opinion. A 2019 poll showed that 46% of American men and 30% of women think the gender pay gap is made up. And while I don't necessarily agree with that opinion, I can certainly understand it. And the reason I can understand it is that the issue so often gets presented as a gap in pay that exists between two people of different genders in the same job at similar companies and locations. And while that absolutely happens and should not, it's not what's causing the majority of that 18-cent gap.

The cause is far more complex than that and might be taken more seriously if people stop oversimplifying it. It involves... Well, here, I'll let the one commenter who threw a sound-logic bomb into the comments explain it:

I’m a little surprised by the tenor of the comments here. The pay gap is not a simple “a man and a woman at the same job, the man gets paid more” problem. We’ve known for a while that it’s complicated—from gendered social pressures in work choices, to women being indirectly penalized for having children while men are rewarded, to deprioritizing skills development for women. The fact that this pay gap is so small is absolutely a big deal, and it’s not possible to do an apples to apples comparison of salaries in the WH, where very few jobs require identical skills or responsibilities. I agree that the gap shouldn’t exist, but it’s not a simple or obvious thing to fix.

Near perfect grammar and everything. My hero and savior.

When I see advocates for equal pay reacting to an advance toward victory with a fundamental misunderstanding of the battle and, therefore, what victory even looks like, I can't help but see beyond their misunderstanding, all the way through to the equally hindering misunderstandings on the other side of the issue. And I see how the two opposing misunderstandings feed off each other. And beyond that, I see the majority. I see people who spent their whole lives giving a damn but are now covered in a growing haze of apathy. I see all the caring, reasonable, well-intentioned people throwing their arms up and saying, "Fuck it. Why play a game where the rules of logic don't apply?"

And I can understand that view, too. Oh, how I get it. And oh, how I fight it. I've made it my business not to get stuck there for too long. Because as far as I know, we only get one go at our lives. And I've got better things to do with mine than give up on people.

So if you'll please excuse me: "Drop the confetti!"


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