Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cutting and pasting OR always check the source data

I've mentioned before that I don't like infographics.

Normally this is because the infographic itself is misleading, but today I found an equally hideous incarnation of this.

It all started over at, where I was greeted with this graph:

This pretty much set off my alarm bells immediately.  I had quite a few questions about all of this, as the graph obviously said very little about the methodology.  Who was included?  How did they account for gaps in years worked?  Most importantly, did they control for profession?

I clicked on the link provided, which took me to this blog post on the New York Times website.  It shows the same picture as above, with an intro of the following two sentences:

We’ve written before about how the gender pay gap grows with age. Generally speaking, the older a woman is, the wider the gap between what she earns and what her male counterpart earns.
I was struck by that phrase "male counterpart".  Were we really talking about counterparts here?  I was curious again about the profession question.  It struck me that many female dominated professions are actually "terminal" professions....i.e. the job you enter can remain pretty unchanged for years: teachers, nurses, therapists, etc.  On the other hand, many male dominate professions have far more steps on the ladder, which would be a pretty non-sexist explanation for the continued growth seen throughout the decades.

With this in mind, I went to find the methodology for the graph.  I not only found the methodology, but the rest of the infographic.

As it turns out, the profession issue was directly addressed on the original....but it was completely edited out in subsequent reprints.  Profession does have an effect on earnings growth, and the original captured that.  I'm a little concerned about how far this graphic went without all of the important qualifying information they took care to include.

 Interestingly, the NYT columnist did actually write a more comprehensive article on the topic 2 years ago that she linked to in this article, but I'm surprised she didn't do a recap.  With the ease of transport of info on the web, I don't think the cut and paste job is an okay thing to do.  It sets up less diligent bloggers to merely reprint, and it undermines the original work.  Someone out there is quoting this right now, having no idea that they're missing 2/3rds of the information.

Bad data, bad.


  1. I had not heard the term "terminal profession" - I am a social worker - but that makes sense.

    There are other factors, such as who is willing to work insane hours to get a project completed - more often men - and professions which require risk. These add up over time.

    Not for me, but you get the idea.

    1. I might have just made that term up, but I've thought about it often when talking to my brother Dan (the teacher). I've been angling for a promotion which would up my salary by at least 12%. Dan and I have talked before about how there really is no equivalent in matter how much extra work goes in to it, the job is what it is.

      I think for pay charts like these it's important to realize the numbers are getting skewed by somewhat small groups of people. When I see high achieving women in my age bracket, I notice many of them use their status to cut back on their work....we're interviewing a pediatrician later this week who actually job shares. By my estimate this means she and the other doctor both probably make around 80k to work 20 hours a week with one night on call. An awesome deal, but probably not what a similarly educated man would do in their situation.

      Non profit work also cuts in to women's salaries. When I get calls from recruiters in private industry, I'm normally offered $30k more than I make now. However, my current job offers me an obscene amount of flexibility and some of the best benefits around. It's my choice to value flexibility and lower pressure over money, and it's simply a bad comparison to put my salary up against a similarly talented male who chooses differently.

      Equal opportunity does not mean equal outcomes, and I'm ok with that.