Tuesday was Equal Pay Day, the day dedicated to raising awareness of the alleged gender pay gap—or the oft-reported idea that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Largely the result of women being more likely to take time off or work in lower-paid jobs and industries, many hijack this topic to advocate for more workplace regulation or signal their rage about sexism (despite the statistics showing a more complicated story).
It’s fair for the idea of a gender pay gap to frustrate many on a visceral level. Although the dramatic statistics often cited are not accurate, it’s true that women are more prominent in lower-paid professions and roles. This happens for many reasons—anything from social conditioning that makes it harder to ask for raises to needing flexibility for childrearing.
But these shoddy statistics are used as a talking point by those trying to push legislative agendas, especially on the left. Senator Elizabeth Warren has, in particular, been an outspoken proponent for leveling the gap. As she tweeted last year: “Equal pay day isn’t a national day of celebration. It’s a national day of embarrassment.” Unfortunately, her outrage fails to show self-awareness, on some level.
Sen. Warren’s own office seems to be afflicted by the same issues she’s publicly decrying. The Daily Caller and Washington Free Beacon recently reported on this, claiming that her employees experience a gap of about $20,000 for median annual earnings, by gender. Ah, the hypocrisy!
As nice as it would be if the story were that simple, there are several caveats that come with Senate staffer pay reports; bonuses could inflate salaries, no distinctions are made between part- and full-time employees, and some staff could be interns or working for multiple offices. Relying too heavily on these statistics is irresponsible without more context.
After talking to the senator’s staffers (including her press secretary), it’s clear that several news organizations neglected their due diligence. Had they done more research, they would have noticed that she has many prominent female campaign staffers, as well as several congressional staffers that have switched over to the campaign side. These constant changes distort public records and make it hard to get the full story. Or they could’ve looked at her pay records over time or even asked Sen. Warren’s office if they keep data on pay by gender (which they do).
When looking at pay records over the last four years, there was no ridiculous discrepancy in median incomes by gender, particularly when noting duration of employment. In the past, Warren has employed many high-performing females, especially on the campaign side. Her campaign manager and deputy campaign manager, for example, were both women—and were compensated accordingly.
However, there are still worrisome trends in Warren’s employment practices: If you look at those paid most highly (I used statistics from April-September 2016), there are more men than women at the top. I looked at those who were paid above $40,000 for these six months and found the breakdown to be discouraging: There were nine male employees and three female employees in that bracket. Even worse, none of the female employees made above $60,000 and the three largest earners were men, earning up to $84,729. Of course, it would be unwise to extrapolate from this pay period to others, so I looked at the same criteria for the preceding six months.
These data showed more gender egalitarianism (as there were seven men and five women making $40,000 or above) but the same pattern persisted: The three top earners were still men. If Warren is as feminist as she claims, she should reflect on her own paying practices and determine if they’re aligned with her values. Or perhaps she’s more focused on political posturing to make this issue seem worse than it is.
Of course, there’s one crucial caveat to consider: Some staffers float between roles in congressional offices and campaigns. This distorts the data, as Warren’s staffers pointed out, and makes it easy to misrepresent. As I looked at employment records for Warren’s campaign staff, it became clear that many of her top campaign aides are—and have historically been—women. So even if there’s some gender disparity in her office, I wouldn’t assume it’s out of malice, but rather how things sometimes shake out.
Unlike Warren and many liberals, I don’t think pay disparity necessarily means bad intentions. Perhaps the senator hired the people best for each job instead of giving a specific demographic a leg up. But if that is the case, she should realize that many other organizations do that too. It doesn’t necessarily show horrific, sexist business practices.
If even Elizabeth Warren can’t promote egalitarian gender roles perfectly, what hope is there for the rest of us? Compensating men and women equally—especially when dealing with different work hours and lifestyle choices—isn’t as simple as companies being intentionally chauvinistic.
If we truly want women to succeed in the workplace, dishonest statistics won’t help (I’m looking at you, Washington Free Beacon). Everyone—from top CEOs to Elizabeth Warren—needs to understand that pay gaps don’t always result from bad intentions, but a variety of structural factors and lifestyle choices. Instead of demonizing companies, organizations should be self-aware and find ways to help women succeed in their specific set of circumstances. Twitter outrage and overzealous criticism without context certainly won’t be the solution.
Liz Wolfe is managing editor at Young Voices. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she writes about criminal justice and feminist issues. She tweets at @lizzywol.