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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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December 1998


Playing the Gender Numbers
Guest Editorial, Naomi Lopez

The Fifty Most Powerful Women in Business," a recent Fortune cover story, confirmed that women have indeed come a long way in the working world. But gender victimization activists believe the opposite is true, that rampant, habitual discrimination is the rule in the workplace, and they are going to great lengths to make their case with statistics. Reporters should not fall into the trap of taking such claims at face value.

Consider Employment Discrimination Against Women in Washington State, 1997, recently published by the Rutgers School of Law in Newark, New Jersey. The authors, led by Rutgers law professor Alfred W. Blumrosen, contend that gender discrimination is "regular operating practice" among private employers in Washington state. (The Ford Foundation is bankrolling similar studies in all 50 states.) The study concludes that every fourth private employer in the state intentionally discriminates against women.

How did the authors arrive at this number? They did not consider the actual evidence of harm and examine the outcome of specific charges. Rather, they utilized probability analysis to simply presume employers’ guilt. The authors examined the number of women employed in an occupational category compared to other establishments of its size in the same industry and geographic area. If the number of women in a job at a particular company is significantly lower than the average number of women overall in that job, the authors claim that it is due to intentional gender discrimination.

Another study by Catalyst, a New York-based women’s research organization, used similar methods to reach a similar conclusion. The 1998 Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners found that women have achieved neither representational nor compensatory parity with men. This study counts the Fortune 500's women corporate and line officers and includes earnings comparisons to male colleagues, but fails to carefully examine the many variables that affect position and earnings, such as age, prior experience, performance, educational attainment, and so forth.

Such studies ultimately devalue women’s career choices, which are not always geared towards reaching the corporate boardroom. For example, many women seek success by establishing their own firms and are fulfilling their desire for more flexibility and independence. In fact, female-owned businesses account for one-third of all firms in the United States.

While statistics are routinely used to support claims of discrimination in the workplace, they alone do not show intent, and cannot serve as the sole evidence to determine an employer’s guilt of gender discrimination. The legal standard requires additional evidence of discriminatory practices, does not equate accusation with guilt, and offers the accused party what these studies do not: the opportunity to defend himself or herself.

In the same way, the parents of a child who receives several injuries over the course of a year — far more than the average child — are not automatically guilty of child abuse or neglect. Accompanied by additional evidence, however, such a case might be proven true. The authors of these studies attempt to use statistical disparities, which are often the rule rather than the exception in America, as the sole arbitrator of discriminatory practices.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, fewer than one in five sexual harassment charges results in a meritorious outcome. Of sex-based charges, about one in eight charges results in a meritorious outcome. A formal, legal process exists to compensate alleged victims and protect them from retaliation. The process also punishes alleged perpetrators and protects them from false claims.

The authors of these two recent studies use numbers to fit their pre-ordained conclusion that gender discrimination is rampant in the working world, rather than the boorish and hostile acts of a few individuals. Far more evidence is needed to make their case. There is no doubt that gender discrimination exists, even as we enter the 21st century, and alerting the public to it is an important task. But reporters have an enormous responsibility to distinguish between real discrimination and mere playing by the numbers.

Naomi Lopez is director of the Center for Enterprise and Opportunity at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, California.


Rich Noyes


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