2018 looks like a great year for the women’s pay gap, according to census data released today: A woman now makes 82 cents on average to the man’s dollar, a seemingly significant jump from last year, when she made 80 cents to his dollar.
But that number is misleading, said Deb Vagins, senior vice president of public policy and research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW). There was no actual change in the data numbers, she said. The jump is a direct result of a change in how the Census Bureau conducts its survey.
The concern is that people will assume the wage gap is closing, when it’s really stayed the same. (The numbers are significantly worse for women of color. Black women make only 61 cents for every dollar earned by white men; Latinas make 53 cents.)
“I don’t want people to get caught up in the methodology change… Because it misrepresents what the real story is,” said Vagins. “People might think things are getting better for women’s economic security when they’re not.”
It’s likely many people won’t hear about the real reason for the shrinking pay gap: The change in the survey is highly-technical, and hasn’t been widely reported.
Year to year, the gender wage gap never changes much. It’s been “stuck around the same levels for almost two decades,” AAUW chief executive officer Kimberly Churches wrote today in a press release. According to the old methodology, women have made 80 cents to the man’s dollar since 2016. That’s about one cent up from 2015, two cents up from 2014, three cents up from 2013.
So a two-cent change is a story. Two cents means progress.
The Census Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, recently announced plans to tweak the survey behind the annual gender wage gap numbers, the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) of the Current Population Survey (CPS).
The census likely changed the methodology to make its numbers more precise, said Vagins. Specifically, researchers used a different process for dealing with census respondents who do not report their income. Previously, they’d find someone else who matches up with the income-withholding respondent in seven different categories — like place of residence, and type of job — and substitute in that person’s income. Now they’re offering respondents the option to place themselves in a variety of different wage brackets, instead of jumping right to the income substitution. Those changes, among others, make the gender wage gap look smaller.
Critics have questioned why this methodology change is being made now — whether the Trump Administration made this change deliberately, to make it look like the wage gap is shrinking. Right now, Vagins said, that doesn’t seem particularly likely.
Equal pay has been a legislative priority this year, wrote Churches. Eleven states passed pay equity laws; the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would strengthen the Equal Pay Act with additional procedural protections. (The Act is still pending a vote in the Senate.)
Still, it will likely be years before census data reflects those legislative changes. Until then, Vagins said, it’s important that people continue to recognize the crippling gender pay disparities that exist in the United States.
It’s important, Vagins said, for people to understand the real story of equal pay: “That the wage gap continues, is persistent, and real change is needed.”