There has been quite a bit of hullabaloo about the wage gap between men and women lately. Obama has been throwing around the 77 woman cents per male dollar figure and people have been attacking and supporting that figure from a lot of different angles. His exact quote, during the State of the Union address, was:
"You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work."
I'm nodding my head in agreement until he gets to the equal work part. What does that mean? I honestly don't know. I'm not an expert and I don't have access to the researchers who came up with the number. I would love to sit down with a contributor to the study and ask about their methods, their opinions, and share my stories of workplace discrimination to get their take. Only then would I be able to gain an understanding of whether the researcher was motivated by a genuine search for truth or whether they were commissioned by politicians to hammer an agenda. I don't have that luxury at the moment.
I see the politicization of this issue (and many others) as being corrosive to actually solving problems. It's difficult to discuss these things without pushing people's buttons.
Let me break it down as simply as I can.
If a qualified researcher came out and said "women are less qualified than men" what would happen? Surely some feminists would decry the statement outright. I implore you, however, to give the statement some space in your mind for a moment even if you are a radical feminist. It doesn't state in any way that women are less capable than men, just that they are less qualified than men. Rather than cling to this singular statement as the conclusion of the discussion we should continue the exploration of what this implies. If this were true, it implies to me that women have less access to education and are given fewer opportunities for qualification. Does this statement, so offensive at first blush, actually lead us closer to the truth if we are able to give it enough of our earnest attention to allow it to do so? The solution would then be to increase access to qualification!
I do not hear qualified a researcher saying this, however. The above is just a thought experiment.
On the other hand, what if a researcher came out and said "women are equally qualified to men". What would this imply? It would imply, to me, that there are a lot of assholes out there who are taking advantage of women by paying them less than men. Again, this statement, potentially offensive to some, can lead us to potential solutions if we are able to provide the earnest attention required for it to do so. The solution would then be to prosecute the bigots.
The real solution is probably more complicated than that.
BUT. If we are genuinely interested in solving problems such as gender equality, we owe it to ourselves to temper our natural inclination towards confirmation bias. We have to find the few people, the gems in our midst, who have a ravenous curiosity sufficient to support objective research. These people won't be pundits on TV or columnists and likely not people we follow on Twitter (unless we are in the field). We have to find them, empower them, and listen to them when they have something to say. If the authors of the study were indeed these people, then the politicization of their work is the real disgrace in 2014 because it binds our hands when we need them to solve our problems.