White House economist Betsy Stevenson sat down with MSNBC’s Irin Carmon earlier this week for a really fascinating interview (H/T: the excellent blog Family Inequality ). I strongly suggest reading the whole thing, and I plan to revisit some of the topics she discusses in a later post. But for now, I wanted to focus on what Stevenson has to say about the gender gap in wages.

Disturbingly, in recent years, we’ve stopped making progress in closing the gender pay gap. Perhaps sensing women’s frustration with their undersized paychecks, Democrats have made equal pay for women one of their major issues this election cycle. Last year, Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic women announced an ambitious female-centric economic agenda that includes paycheck fairness, paid family leave, and more funding for child care.

Given Republican domination of the House, at this point, their agenda is more a wish list than anything else. Nevertheless, it’s a terrific idea both as political strategy and as substantive policy. Republicans are showing clear signs of anxiety over the popularity that an equal pay agenda has with voters. One way you can tell it’s getting under their skin is that they’re on the defensive and saying some very silly and offensive things about the issue.

For example, a Republican PAC that’s backing Wendy Davis’s opponent for Texas governor is claiming that Texas women are “too busy” to focus on equal pay. We’re also being treated to yet another iteration of the very old, very peculiar conservative idea that marriage is a solution to the problem of women’s workplace inequality. (I feel another Ross Douthat column coming on about this subject any minute now).

And oh yes, conservative operatives are in full Big Lie mode about the gender gap in pay, too. With one breath they say women don’t care about unequal pay, and with the next they claim the gender gap is a “myth,” as the Heritage Foundation recently did here. Distressingly, wingnuts are not the only ones peddling the myth of the myth of the gender gap; I also caught Hana Rosin repeating this nonsense in a Slate column last year. I know: #Slatepitch! But really, she should know better.

I can see why conservatives want to spread lies about the pay gap. Equal pay for equal work is an ideal that resonates deeply with people. Since it’s hard to come right out and say you’re in favor of unequal pay, which they are, they try to muddy the waters. That doesn’t explain why someone like Rosin would want to enable their dishonest hackery. But I suppose there will always be a certain species of pundit for whom the lure of cheap contrarianism is apparently irresistible.

Anyway, given all the conservative disinformation there is out there about the gender gap in pay, it’s great to have an actual expert wade in and drop some knowledge — especially because she does so in such a straightforward and unapologetic way. Here’s Carmon’s question and Stevenson’s answer:

Every time the president comes out and says, women should have equal pay for equal work, you have folks, including economists, come out and say, that’s a misleading number, that’s not for the same job, that’s year-round full-time wages, and a big part of it is women’s choices. What’s your response to that, and what’s a good way to understand these numbers?

When people come out and say that’s not a fair number, well, what really is a fair number? You brought up “women’s choices.” Well, some women’s choices come about because they’re being discriminated against. Some of women’s choices come because they experience sexism. Some of women’s choices come because they are disproportionately balancing the needs of work and family.

Which of these choices should we consider legitimate choices, and which of them should we consider things that we have a societal obligation to try to mitigate, to alleviate some of these constraints so that they can make different choices? A lot of people will say things like, let’s control for occupational choices. But the research is showing us that women are choosing occupations which penalize them the least for taking time out of work.

If there was less discrimination, if there was more flexibility in work, you wouldn’t see women necessarily choosing the same occupations. So why should I take the wage gap holding occupation constant? If we change society, we reduce discrimination, we’re not going to hold occupational choice constant – women are going to choose different occupations.

I agree that the 77 cents on the dollar is not all due to discrimination. No one is trying to say that it is. But you have to point to some number in order for people to understand the facts. And what it represents is the fact that women on average are put in situations every day that for a variety of reasons mean they earn less. Much of what we need to do to close that gap is to change the constraints that women face. And there are things we haven’t tried.

I will add a few more things to Stevenson’s comments. Women of color suffer from an even bigger wage gap than white women do. White women working full-time, year-round make 78 percent of what their white male counterparts make. But African-American women take home only 64 percent of the pay of white men, and Latinas make only 53 percent as much. Also, because of gender disparities in care responsibilities, many more women than men work part-time. That means they earn much less than men, even though the disparity isn’t accounted for in the official statistic.

The statistic is misleading in another way as well, since it looks at median earnings. But when you look at the average difference between what male and female workers who work full-time, year-round make, the gap is even wider. Moreover, the CPS topcodes the highest wages. Since women are grossly underrepresented at the top, comparisons between men’s and women’s average wages understate the actual pay gap.

Finally, as Stevenson says, not all of the pay disparity is due to the type of discrimination that might be actionable in a court of law — paying a woman who has exactly the same qualifications as a man less for doing exactly the same work. But female-dominated professions tend to pay less, even the ones that require education and professional training. That’s sexism too, even if it’s not discrimination, per se. (For a detailed discussion of the economics of the gender gap, check out this excellent series of posts on the subject by blogger Echidne of the Snakes, aka economist Jana Goodrich).

The other issue is that discussions of the gender pay gap tend to focus on wage inequality at the expense of the broader context of the even greater gender-based economic disparities that disadvantage women in our society. The wage gap may be the most visible economic injustice women suffer from, but it’s hardly the only one. Even when women stop earning wages, they suffer from significant gender-related economic inequities: retirement inequality is a huge issue for women. Elderly women are more than twice as likely as elderly men to live in poverty, and their Social Security benefits are lower, even though they receive significantly less retirement income from other sources.

In addition, as Mariko Lin Chang’s recent book, Shortchanged documents, the gender wealth inequality gap is even more significant than the wage inequality gap. She points out that for every dollar of wealth owned by single men, single women own only 36 cents, and that since 1998, the gender wealth gap has been on the rise.

Discussions of the pay gap almost always ignore the larger economic context for women, and they shouldn’t. When we see the entire picture, the deep and persistent economic inequities that women suffer from become clear. Much needs to be done to remedy the situation, but at minimum, we need to strengthen equal pay laws, which is what the Democrats are calling for. That the Republicans refuse to support a reform that is so modest, and spread lies about it in the bargain, is both pathetic and infuriating.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, which is Equal Pay day, President Obama will sign two new executive actions to strengthen federal rules on equal pay for women. As I noted above, this kind of thing is not only excellent policy, it’s great politics as well. The more time the Republicans spend answering questions about why they don’t support equal pay protections for women, the better it is for Democrats.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee