Fact-checking David Brooks, citing Hanna Rosin edition

I’m getting hundreds of clicks today from someone who posted a comment on David Brooks’ column (a sliver of a fraction of a percent of his readers). So here’s a little detail.

He wrote:

Men still dominate the tippy-top of the corporate ladder because many women take time off to raise children, but women lead or are gaining nearly everywhere else. Women in their 20s outearn men in their 20s.

The first sentence is too slippery to fact-check. But I think it would be more accurate to say, and less slippery: “men dominate at all levels of the corporate ladder, and women having children is only part of the reason why.”

But anyways, the second sentence is a specific empirical claim, and it is not true.

If Brooks’s intern — or (shudder) a fact-checker at a newspaper — had typed this into Google they would know: “bls earnings by age and sex”. As of today, that search leads to this as the second link:

This is not an obscure source. Finding it hardly counts as research. If you opened it, you would see the median earnings for men and women, by age, race and ethnicity, for full-time workers. If you copied a couple of those columns into your spreadsheet and asked it for the ratio of the medians, this is what you would see: Men earn more at every age.

I know the history of this factoid meme, which is detailed here and here. What he is quoting is probably a Hanna Rosin (or Liza Mundy) misquote of an analysis which compared 22-30-year-old, never-married, childless, metro-area residents a few years ago.

But there is being succinct and punchy, and there is being wrong. Shortening “22-30-year-old, never-married, childless, metro-area residents” to “women in their 20s” is wrong.

Common, major media conglomerates: get the facts!

13 thoughts on “Fact-checking David Brooks, citing Hanna Rosin edition

  1. Phil,
    I’m glad you caught that mistake in David Brooks’ column. Yes, it’s incorrect to claim that ‘women in their 20s’ out-earn men. As you point out, we found that happens only when pulling out the segment that’s never married and childless in America’s metro areas. To clarify further, that’s when looking at the median income, which does not say that a woman with an equivalent job and equivalent education out-earns a man. The median for this segment of young women is higher in part because there’s a larger population of young women graduating from college than young men. There’s also an additional factor that this appears to play out more in metro areas with higher minority populations, since Hispanic and African American females have an even bigger edge in educational attainment than their male peers.

    But as an average, this isn’t a universal phenomena. There are cities where this segment of young men have a big advantage over young women, particularly where there’s dramatic gender segregation in the city’s leading industries (e.g., manufacturing, petrochemicals, software engineering, where men hold 75%-80% of the higher-paying jobs).

    The good and the bad news is that data are out there that people can use to ‘prove’ any viewpoint, and that’s happening on all sides of the debate, but entering that debate is not my job. The reality is that this is a complicated issue, and it plays out in many arenas, whether in higher ed, community development, economic development, consumer marketing, etc. Certainly worthy of continued consideration from all angles.


    1. Thank you, James. I was trying to replicate this, and wonder if you could answer this: did you use all income or just wage/salary income, and did you included people with no income? I appreciate your candid responses. Thanks.


  2. Phil, I think that myth that young women outearn young men comes from a consulting company (maybe a market research firm) that got a lot of media play for a “study” they did (they wouldn’t send us a copy) that claimed that in a list of large urban areas, young single women outearn young single men. If true, and I believe they used Census Bureau data in their study, there could be a lot of reasons for that, like well-educated young women flock to large cities and men with that education might be more geographically distributed ior other reasons we could explore. Hard to say, without having the “study”.

    Heidi Hartmann, IWPR


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