Monthly Archives: February 2015

Wage debate at the Oscars

Actress Patricia Arquette used her moment at this year’s Oscars to spotlight gender pay equity. Admirable. But what do the data say?

arquetteAfter her speech for best supporting actress for “Boyhood,” social media lit up with comments, including an often-repeated, but highly flawed statistic claiming women make 77 cents for each dollar a man makes.

That number comes from a Census Bureau report that compares annual wages, which can include bonuses and investment income, but can be unfair to workers like teachers who don’t get paid in the summer.

A better measure is median weekly earnings, which is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Their latest figures shows women overall making 81 percent of what men make.

But even that’s flawed because it doesn’t measure women doing the same work. Women often work fewer hours (35 hours is considered full-time here) and are more likely to be in lower-paying occupations.

gender graphic

Women’s wages grow to 91 percent if you compare genders based on educational attainment and experience, and working in the same occupation and industry, according to a study by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn.

Two other economists, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, did a deeper analysis of MBA students. At graduation, males and females had only a tiny difference in salary, they found. But 10 to 15 years later, women’s earnings were 60 percent of men’s.

What happened in the interim? The women were more likely to have taken a break to care for children (especially if they had high-earning husbands), and when working, they were generally clocking fewer hours. The researchers said nearly all of the gap could be explained by these factors.

The women in the study who did not have children had earnings that were 88 percent of male earnings, and economists said that gap can be explained by the fact that the women were disproportionately working in smaller firms, often in the non-profit sector.

These studies raise the question of whether the wage gap is due to discrimination or women’s choices of career and family.  You can read more about this debate here and here and here.

Arquette was basing her comments on personal experience, but outside of anecdotes in leaked Sony emails, getting that data isn’t easy, either. Forbes tried to put together a list of the top 10 highest-earning A-list Hollywood actors between 2013 and 2014. The result? All men.

–MaryJo Webster

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Torturing the data till it lies

“Top 10 states for left-handers!” “Worst states for tall people” “Best country to travel to if you are 45!”

The Web is ripe with news features like this. Recipe: Assemble a basket of social measures for states or nations. Blend, rank and present as a measure of some condition. They are usually built as galleries of images or pages. Even as a reward for multiple clicks, they rarely offer a reader-friendly at-a-glance list.

The biggest problem with rankings like this: They use grouped data to conclude something about experiences that are much more tightly linked to local and personal factors.

This is the ecological fallacy. Put simply, you often can’t infer something about individuals because you have data about a group of them. This is especially true if the link that’s being claimed is barely plausible.

state_oatmeal

A simple and famous example: In the 1930 Census, a strong correlation existed between states’ English literacy rates and their shares of foreign-born people. But were immigrants more likely to be literate in English than native-born Americans? No. Census data for individuals showed the opposite, of course – Immigrants were less likely than natives to be literate in English. But immigrants had clustered in states with relatively high literacy rates, so grouped data made them seem more literate than natives.

Another example: In the presidential election of 1968, segregationist George Wallace won the electoral votes of AL, AR, GA, LA and MS. These states had the highest rates of black voters. Should we conclude that blacks voted strongly for Wallace?

States – diverse collections of people acting through laws and policies – exert little or no effect on many conditions in daily life, such as crime. And most social conditions vary within a state far more than they do among states. Data journalists spend a lot of time and sweat trying to get this right by collecting *local* crime rates or  student-pupil ratios before they start probing for patterns.

There are legitimate times to rank states, most obviously on something the state government itself can affect directly, like the climate for startup businesses or the strength of consumer protection laws.

And USA TODAY, has run such lists from content partners. They can be fun, clickable lists. But they really don’t tell us anything about ourselves.

So if your state ranks low as a place to be a coin collector or a Chevy driver, don’t fret.

–Paul Overberg