April 8 was Equal Pay Day, the day by which women will have theoretically worked enough to catch up to what men made the year before. In honor of that, the Senate voted on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill aimed at giving women a little more power to fight wage discrimination, which Republicans unanimously blocked. While some Republicans claim they care about the wage gap and just object to what they see as burdensome regulation, other conservatives have been calling the idea of the gender wage gap itself into question.
It is a fair question to ask what causes the gap. While it’s true that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes when they work full-time, year-round, it’s also true that this figure can obscure various factors that aren’t purely discriminatory. Work experience plays a role. Industry and occupation play a role. Education can play a role.
In trying to figure out how much of the wage gap is discrimination and how much can be explained by other factors, nearly every statistician conducts regression studies that take measurable factors into consideration by holding them constant and seeing what’s left over. From government agencies like the Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office to women’s advocacy groups like AAUW to economists like Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, a similar group of factors are held constant to find the “unexplained” gap, or the murk where bias would rear its head if it does exist. One of those constant factors is race.
At first blush, this makes sense. All of these researchers are striving to compare the most apple-like of apples to apples—a woman and a man who look as identical as possible and therefore should be paid the same. Therefore, they compare a woman to a man with the same job tenure, seniority, occupation, marital status and race, or in other words, measurable differences. Discrimination will crop up when everything they can measure is stripped out but a gap remains.
But that means that race gets removed from the conversation about discrimination. It’s ends up in the “explained” category. In the study by Blau and Kahn, for example, they list their six controlled factors and note that 2.4 percent of the gap is explained by race. On the other hand, 41.1 percent of the gap remains unexplained, the part that is “potentially due to discrimination,” according to their paper, but not a part that includes racial disparities.