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Ask the Experts: The Pay Gap Explained

President Obama recently noted that women make only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn — a statistic that has been endlessly debated. Here’s why we’re having the wrong discussion about the problem.

You’ve probably heard (or read) the most commonly cited stat about the wage gap: On average, women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns — a ratio that hasn’t shifted since 2002. President Barack Obama wasn’t shy about using this figure (again) in a speech on April 8, otherwise known as National Equal Pay Day (the date marks how far into the following year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year), when he issued two measures aimed at narrowing the gap among workers contracted by the federal government, noting that “it’s an embarrassment” that women with the same education in the same field earn less than men.

But the 77-cent figure doesn’t paint a complete picture of the wage gap, a fact that has been hashed out countless times in political speeches and the media. It derives from a simple calculation of U.S. Census Bureau data — the difference between women’s median salaries and those of men. It doesn’t take into account other variables that affect wages, like level of education, amount of work experience, or the fact that women are more likely than men to take jobs with lower salaries but more flex time — to better  accommodate child-rearing. Depending on how you add it up, the pay gap shrinks (or sometimes grows).

Nevertheless, it doesn’t disappear. Though its actual size may be tricky to pin down, the wage gap is real and signifies a problem that’s much bigger than a single statistic. So, NationSwell convened a panel of experts and asked them to explain the pay gap phenomenon, why it exists and what we can do to fix it. Read on for their thoughts, and then join the conversation by leaving your own ideas in the comments box below.

MORE: The Surprising Key to Closing the Gender Pay Gap

 

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Erin Skarda is a freelance journalist and editor based in Denver, Colo. She is a former editor and writer for TIME.com.