Once more unto the gender pay gap

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.”

Henry V, from Shakespeare’s “Henry V”


Mainstream media fact checkers have done a lousy job of alerting their readers to Democrats’ deceptive gender pay gap claims.  We’ll review the fact checks of the pay gap issue from FactCheck.org, the Washington Post Fact Checker and PolitiFact, and explain throughout how the central deception nearly always escapes scrutiny.


Gender Pay Crap


For years, Democrats have used the gender pay gap issue as political lever.  For example, opposing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which did only slightly more than make it easier to win a pay discrimination suit regardless of the suit’s merit, meant opposing equal pay for equal work.  And Democrats have persistently used the raw pay gap numbers to justify the need for legislation ensuring equal pay for equal work.

Let’s break that down, briefly:  If, regardless of the job, the median full-time working woman makes 77 cents on the dollar compared to the median full-time working man, this is used as evidence of the need for legislation intended to ensure equal pay for equal work.  Readers, before continuing, should understand that statistics compiled without regard for the job performed offer poor evidence for a need to ensure equal pay for equal work.

Democrat politicians tend to use the raw pay gap data without regard for its obvious weaknesses.  And mainstream fact checkers tend to look the other way.


FactCheck.org logo


We regard FactCheck.org as the best of the mainstream fact checkers.  On this topic, they sustain their reputation purely by not doing the job as badly as the competition does it.  FactCheck.org has dealt with the issue only twice.


June 22, 2012:  “Obama’s 77-Cent Exaggeration

An election-year ad from President Obama said women receive only 77 cents on the dollar compared to men for doing the same work.  FactCheck.org noted the statistic doesn’t describe men and women doing the same work and touched on the central deception:

(T)he president was flatly wrong to say that women are paid 77 percent of the pay of men for the “same work.” And the fact that women’s median annual earnings are 77 percent of men’s isn’t all or even mostly due to discrimination, as the ad implies.


If discrimination accounted for a pay gap as great as 12 cents on the dollar, then President Obama’s ad exaggerated the gap by 92 percent.  And the smaller the discrimination-based gap, the greater the exaggeration.


April 18, 2014:  “Playing Politics with the Pay Gap

FactCheck.org next addressed the pay gap about two years later.  The story started by focusing on claims by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) that Obama’s White House paid women 88 cents on the dollar for doing “comparable” work.  But the story went on to point out that Democrats likewise abused pay gap statistics, and explained various problems with their arguments, including the following:

Pay disparity figures — particularly when they claim to be tied to doing comparable jobs — imply discrimination, and experts say only part of the gap is due to discrimination.


FactCheck.org has done some fine reporting on the gender pay gap.  We mostly object to the fact checker’s choice to tackle the issue rarely, prompted only on occasion by the most egregious abuse.  The raw gender pay gap for full-time workers misleads even when politicians don’t say it’s for the same work.  That comparison is typically implied even when politicians omit those qualifying words.

It’s all downhill from here for the mainstream fact checkers.



The Washington Post Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler

June 5, 2012:  “The White House’s use of data on the gender wage gap

With his first foray into checking gender pay gap claims, Kessler picked on a pair of statements from the executive branch.  Both statements fulfill the pattern we mentioned above, implicitly saying the full wage gap stems from employer discrimination.  First, President Obama from a June 4, 2012 conference call:

THE PRESIDENT:  Hey, guys, thanks for joining the call.  As Valerie just said, and I know everybody has been talking about, tomorrow Congress is going to have a chance to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act.  I don’t have to tell you how much this matters to families across the country.  All of you are working day in, day out, to support the basic principle, equal pay for equal work.

And we’ve made progress.  But we’ve got a lot more to do.  Women still earn just 70 77* cents for every dollar a man earns.


Note the president’s saying there’s more progress needed to fulfill the principle of equal pay for equal work since women still earn just 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.  He implies the 23-cent gap occurs on the basis of sex discrimination.

Next, a statement from the Office of Management and Budget stating the administration’s position on the Paycheck Fairness Act:

The Administration strongly supports Senate passage of S. 3220, the Paycheck Fairness Act. Women continue to earn substantially less than men for performing the same work. Women earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn, with women of color at an even greater disadvantage with 64 cents on the dollar for African American women and 56 cents for Hispanic women.


Again, the administration plainly implies the 23-cent gap represents employer discrimination where men and women are performing the same work.

The Washington Post Fact Checker rightly notes some ways the touted 23-cent pay gap may fail to correctly peg the amount of gender bias, but gives the twin claims a single “Pinocchio.” Kessler defines one “Pinocchio as “Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.”  Yet it’s an outright falsehood that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men doing the same work.

Kessler puts the discriminatory pay gap at a minimum of 5 percent, citing a secondary source:

(E)conomists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis surveyed economic literature and concluded that “research suggests that the actual gender wage gap (when female workers are compared with male workers who have similar characteristics) is much lower than the raw wage gap.” They cited one survey, prepared for the Labor Department, which concluded that when such differences are accounted for, much of the hourly wage gap dwindled, to about 5 cents on the dollar.


Kessler’s account doesn’t tell the whole story.

It’s true the CONSAD report (URL added Nov. 9, 2016; thanks to a reader, Amanda, who noticed the broken link from our quotation of the Washington Post) estimated a wage gap of roughly 5 percent after accounting for a set of variables:

Statistical analysis that includes those variables has produced results that collectively account for between 65.1 and 76.4 percent of a raw gender wage gap of 20.4 percent, and thereby leave an adjusted gender wage gap that is between 4.8 and 7.1 percent.


But the report went on to mention another set of difficult-to-measure variables that could further whittle down the wage gap:

(I)t is not possible now, and doubtless will never be possible, to determine reliably whether any portion of the observed gender wage gap is not attributable to factors that compensate women and men differently on socially acceptable bases, and hence can confidently be attributed to overt discrimination against women.


It’s misleading to suggest the CONSAD report estimates a gender wage gap in the neighborhood of 5 percent.

Kessler’s next two wage gap stories come from President Obama’s State of the Union speeches and do not give “Pinocchio” ratings to the gender pay gap claims.


Feb. 12, 2013: “Fact checking the 2013 State of the Union speech

This item recycles the objections from Kessler’s 2012 fact check, including the objectionable 5 percent pay gap estimate.  Kessler presents the 5 percent pay gap as the low estimate.


Jan. 28, 2014: “Fact checking the 2014 State of the Union speech

Kessler’s 2014 State of the Union review was nearly the same as the one from 2013 in addressing the pay gap issue.  It suggests the pay gap is no less than 5 percent.


April 9, 2014: “President Obama’s persistent ’77 cent’ claim on the gender wage gap gets a new Pinocchio rating

We gave Kessler a “Glennocchio” for this item back in April.  Kessler praises Obama for not using the 77-cent pay gap figure.  But Obama was giving his speech on “Equal Pay Day,” which by its intended nature sends the same pay gap discrimination message.  The praise for Obama makes no real sense.

Making matters worse, Kessler continues to use the CONSAD research to suggest a discriminatory pay gap no smaller than about 5 percent.


PF National2PolitiFact

PolitiFact does the worst job on this issue of any of the mainstream fact checkers.  Politicians using a raw pay gap to explicitly describe a gap based on gender discrimination tend to get “Mostly False” ratings.  We’ll focus here on PolitiFact’s treatment of gender pay gap claims with “Half True” ratings or higher.


June 15, 2012: “Tim Kaine says Virginia women earn 79 cents to every $1 made by men

PolitiFact Virginia inaugurated PolitiFact’s inadequate effort with this item evaluating Gov. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on his description of the gender pay gap using the raw figure for Virginia, 79 cents on the dollar.

PolitiFact Virginia rates Kaine’s claim “Mostly True,” even while admitting that it leaves a misleading impression:

(G)ender pay is a complicated subject and there are many reasons — in addition to discrimination — why a gap exists: women tend to work fewer hours than men; they tend to choose lower paying professions than men; they tend to take more time off than men to tend to children.

Kaine’s statement lacks this context. It creates an impression that men are being paid much more than women when their qualifications, occupations and work hours are the same. So we rate his statement Mostly True.


PolitiFact Virginia rewards Kaine for using a correct statistic the wrong way.  It’s true a gender pay gap exists, but it has many causes, and presenting the gap as the result of a single cause misleads the audience.  Kaine brandished the statistic while lamenting the 2012 failure of Congress to pass the Fair Pay Act, making it a clear allusion to gender discrimination.  Kaine misled his audience.


Sept. 5, 2012: “Diana DeGette says women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man

National PolitiFact issued a rating tightly parallel to PolitiFact Virginia’s a few months later.

PolitiFact praised Rep. Diana DeGette for her careful use of the statistic.  PolitiFact rated DeGette’s claim “Mostly True,” ignoring the fact that she used the statistic to illustrate the need for legislation helping women demand pay equal to that of men for doing the same job.  DeGette received a pass on that issue.  PolitiFact provided more context by offering three estimates of the amount of the gap attributable to gender discrimination, ranging from 25 percent to 40 percent.  That translates to a range of 6 cents to 9 cents.  PolitiFact cited the CONSAD study but ignored its estimates and central conclusions.

DeGette uses a number for the pay gap that exaggerates PolitiFact‘s most generous estimate of the discriminatory gap by 156 percent and receives a “Mostly True” rating.


Oct. 1, 2012: “Is there a gender wage gap in every state?

PolitiFact Georgia gives us perhaps the worst fact check ever on the wage gap issue, addressing the claim that a wage gap exists in every state.   The story mentions the raw wage gap prominently, but only vaguely touches on the discrimination issue.  The story gives readers no real clue about what part of the gap stems from discrimination, and simply calls it “True” a wage gap exists in every state.


April 9, 2013: “Gender wage gap claim needs more context

PolitiFact Georgia returned about six months later, calling a gender wage claim “Half True.”  Writer Janel Davis wrote both PolitiFact Georgia stories, but this time devoted more space to explaining why the raw pay gap was misleading in the context of pay discrimination.  The CONSAD study didn’t make it on to Davis’ list of sources, and the story gives 6.6 percent as the lower baseline for gender-based pay discrimination.


April 18, 2013: “R.I. Treasurer Gina Raimondo repeats oft-quoted, but misleading, statistic in equal pay debate

PolitiFact Rhode Island posted a fact check on the gender pay gap just days later.  This effort also misrepresented, by omission, the CONSAD report:

The U.S. Department of Labor looked at the question in a 2009 report. It noted that there are several work-related attributes of women and men that account for most of the wage gap. So its statistical analysis adjusted for the fact that women are more likely to work part-time (where the pay for everyone tends to be lower), leave the labor force for children or elder care, and gravitate toward “family friendly” occupations where compensation is more likely to be in the form of health insurance or other fringe benefits.

It found that women earned 93-95 cents for every dollar earned by men.


Again, we see the implication of a gender-bias pay gap in the neighborhood of 5 percent.  But as we’ve shown above, the CONSAD report went further in its conclusions, showing ways the remaining percentage could well shrink to almost nothing.  PolitiFact Rhode Island simply misleads its readers with this reporting.  Rhode Island Democrat Gina Raimondo, the state treasurer, received a “Half True” rating.


April 24, 2013: “Rep. Marcia Fudge cites wage gap between Ohio women and men

Rep. Marcia Fudge made a gender pay gap statement nearly identical to Raimondo’s.  Perhaps the biggest difference between the two was Fudge’s more obvious misstatement that the gap is represented by the mean and not the median.  Regardless of that, PolitiFact Ohio awarded Fudge a “Mostly True.”  PolitiFact Ohio‘s baseline figure for the gender pay gap was 6.6 percent, and that was for college graduates one year removed from graduation.  PolitiFact Ohio was careful to tell its readers the gap could grow over time.

The CONSAD report wasn’t mentioned and did not appear as a primary source on PolitiFact Ohio‘s list of sources.


January 29, 2014: “Barack Obama, in State of the Union, says women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns

We first criticized this article by PolitiFact back on Feb. 3, 2014.  Back then, we focused on PolitiFact overlooking the obvious textual clues that Obama was implying a pay gap based on gender discrimination.  But the fact check from the national PolitiFact repeats the same general error in reporting the results of the CONSAD study:

The CONSAD paper suggested that when you control for every factor but discrimination, the gap shrunk to between 93 cents and 95 cents — not zero, but significantly smaller than the 77-cent figure Obama used.


The paper never says it controlled for every factor but discrimination.  On the contrary, the report’s conclusion says the opposite.  We repeat the quotation we used earlier, from the concluding summary of the CONSAD paper:

(I)t is not possible now, and doubtless will never be possible, to determine reliably whether any portion of the observed gender wage gap is not attributable to factors that compensate women and men differently on socially acceptable bases, and hence can confidently be attributed to overt discrimination against women.


PolitiFact‘s paraphrase of the CONSAD paper is wrong.  Obama’s implied figure for gender discrimination, 23 percent, exaggerates PolitiFact‘s wrongly reported CONSAD estimate, 7 percent, by almost 230 percent.  PolitiFact‘s rating of the president’s claim?  “Mostly True.”


Feb. 19, 2014: “Do Oregon women earn 79 cents for every dollar men earn for doing the same job?

As noted at the start of the PolitiFact section, PolitiFact will usually rate “Mostly False” gender pay gap claims using the raw wage gap to explicitly describe a gap based on discrimination.

PolitiFact Oregon went wildly out of step with its PolitiFact brethren with its fact check of Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian of Oregon.  Avakian said women in Oregon make 79 cents on the dollar for doing the same jobs as men.  PolitiFact Oregon gave Avakian a “Mostly True” rating.

PolitiFact Oregon omitted any reference to the CONSAD report, and relied on an expert to estimate the discrimination-based pay gap in Oregon at between 5 percent and 8 percent:

Nothing has shown that any gap is solely because of workplace discrimination, (Ariane) Hegewisch said. But studies controlling for factors such as level of education, hours worked and sector of work still leave 25 to 40 percent of the gap explainable only by discrimination, Hegewisch said.


Did Hegewisch contradict herself? PolitiFact Oregon makes it look that way.

In any case, Avakian received his “Mostly True” rating for a figure that was exaggerated by about 160 percent using PolitiFact Oregon‘s flawed research.


Mary Burke equal pay email

Mary Burke email, via Kos diarist

April 8, 2014: “Scott Walker opponent Mary Burke says working Wisconsin women earn 80% of what men earn

PolitiFact Wisconsin more-or-less followed PolitiFact Oregon’s pattern with its fact check of gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke (D-Wisc.). Granted, Burke wasn’t quite as obvious as Avakian in claiming the raw pay gap applies where men and women are doing the same work. But as the text of her claim shows (see image at left), she used the raw gap figure to represent a difference caused by discrimination.

The fact check does not mention the CONSAD report, instead relying on information from such dubiously neutral entities as the American Association of University Women, the National Partnership for Women & Families and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

PolitiFact Wisconsin used a 7 percent figure to represent the baseline for discrimination’s role in the national pay gap.


April 18, 2014: “Nunn avoids slip up on gender pay claim

PolitiFact Georgia addressed the gender pay gap again in April 2014. Georgia Democratic congressional candidate Michelle Nunn sent out a statement similar to Mary Burke’s.  Nunn’s statement very clearly connects the raw gender wage gap with gender discrimination, saying the Paycheck Fairness Act will do a great deal to address the pay gap she’s talking about. The ACLU’s description of that bill confirms it is intended to secure equal pay for equal work.

PolitiFact Georgia rated Nunn’s claim, but did her the favor of eliminating the context of her statement:

“On average, women make 77 cents for every dollar men make,” the candidate, Michelle Nunn, a Democrat, has said in statements and on her Facebook page.


The whole sentence would have looked like this (bold emphasis in the original):

And as early as tomorrow, the Senate is likely to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would go a long way toward fixing the fact that, on average, women make 77 cents for every dollar men make.


We’re trying to figure out a way this part of PolitiFact Georgia‘s reporting fails to count as a lie:

There are two key points to Nunn’s statement. She began with the qualifier “on average.” And she did not say there was a pay gap for women doing the same work as men.

That puts Nunn’s statement more in line with the U.S. Census Bureau study. Nunn made no attempt to equate equal work with equal pay — a comparison that has landed some of her fellow politicians on shaky Truth-O-Meter terrain.


Nunn absolutely implies the pay gap exists in large part for men and women doing the same work. Otherwise she could not justify saying the Paycheck Fairness Act would do much to address the gap. How could a fact checker miss the obvious context? And how can PolitiFact Georgia justify omitting that context from the story while painting a false picture for the reader?

July 30, 2014: “Florida women make 83 cents for every dollar a man makes, Crist says

PolitiFact Florida‘s opportunity to give a glowing rating to a falsehood came courtesy of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist. The fact check of Crist follows the pattern of turning a blind eye to context showing the candidate was addressing the effect of gender bias on income, while focusing on the literal truth of a gender wage gap occurring for reasons other than gender discrimination.

PolitiFact Florida shared enough context to justify condemning Crist’s claim (bold emphasis added):

“Women in Florida make 83 cents for every dollar a man makes,” Crist said in a campaign email sent out July 29, 2014, the same day he announced his First Day of Fairness plan.

The plan outlines a series of executive orders Crist promised to make on his first day in office if he is elected. The potential orders promote causes like government transparency, raising the minimum wage among businesses contracted with the state, and, in this case, ending gender wage discrimination for employees of those contractors.


There’s the connection, highlighted in bold. Crist mentions the raw gender wage gap to show what a great candidate he is for pledging to end gender wage discrimination among companies contracting with the state. PolitiFact Florida, judging from its source list, did not bother to look at the full plan Crist described briefly in his campaign email. We did.

The plan says “On average, women in Florida are paid $7,128 less per year than men for the same type of work.”

As for PolitiFact Florida, its fact check says discrimination is “partly to blame” for the raw gender pay gap, and mentions the CONSAD paper without mentioning many specifics from it. PolitiFact Florida awards Crist a “Mostly True” rating.


The truth gap in gender pay gap stories


The mainstream fact checkers—all of them—tend to give Democrats a pass on gender wage gap claims where it is only implied that gender discrimination accounts for the gap.

FactCheck.org gives Democrats a pass by not bothering to challenge  gender wage gap claims except those explicitly saying gender discrimination causes it.

The Washington Post Fact Checker and PolitiFact give Democrats a pass by suffering temporary blindness for context that very clearly shows candidates making the implied argument that gender discrimination accounts for the raw gender pay gap.

Here’s the truth: There’s hardly any reason at all for a politician to mention the raw pay gap unless that politician is arguing for equal pay for equal work. The alternative is equal pay for unequal work, an idea that remains unpopular in the United States. As a result, nearly every mention of the gender pay gap by a Democrat will likely feature context arguing for equal pay for equal work. The raw wage gap statistic does not fit that argument. Using it for that purpose amounts to deception. It’s time fact checkers started consistently recognizing that deception and identifying it as such for their readers.

Of the three fact checkers we examined, only FactCheck.org reported adequately on the CONSAD study. CONSAD produced the closest thing we have to an objective look at the role of bias in the gender pay gap. The Washington Post Fact Checker left out important information from the study.  PolitiFact did also, when it wasn’t either omitting any mention of the study or misreporting its findings.

Let’s correct the truth gap on the gender pay gap issue or fill it with our fact-checking dead.

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