Leave Miss Utah Alone

Miss Utah in a gown at the Miss USA pageant

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June 18, 2013

On Sunday evening, an unexpected topic came up during the Miss USA beauty pageant: equal pay.

Here’s what happened. During the interview portion of the annual pageant, Miss Utah Marissa Powell was given the following prompt: “A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?”

It was the kind of question we might ask one of our own researchers or policy analysts at AAUW and expect them to pause a moment before answering. But Powell bravely jumped in to deliver a cringe-inducing moment that has seized the internet:

I think we can relate this back to education, and how we are … continuing to try to strive to [very long pause] figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem. And I think, especially the men are, um, seen as the leaders of this, and so we need to try to figure out how to create educate better so we can solve this problem. Thank you.

Reactions online were unsurprisingly harsh. The blog Deadspin called her response “insanely idiotic” while tweets stacked up with words like “dumb,” “incoherent,” and “moron.”

But misogyny, cruelty, and schadenfreude on the Internet aren’t really news. What’s also decidedly not news is that a young woman faced with a question regarding breadwinners, equal pay, and cultural values on national television couldn’t come up with much of an answer in under 30 seconds.

What is newsworthy is that the Miss USA pageant included a question about equal pay! This was a moment for moms, dads, and kids watching at home to hear about an issue that probably affects their lives.

But no one heard much about equal pay. Instead, a whole lot of people are jumping on Miss Utah for being unable to sound like Lisa Maatz when discussing the pay gap.

So we’d like to give Miss Utah a break. And we’d also like to take a stab at answering the question.

First, let’s give her some credit for pointing (however vaguely) to education, which absolutely plays a role in the gender pay gap — though not in the way you might think. The pay gap between women and men who have less than a high school diploma sits at 20 percent. That number actually gets worse as women receive more education, widening to 28 percent at the professional degree level. It’s only when women earn doctoral degrees that the wage gap shrinks again, with women earning 80 percent of their male peers’ salaries.

Graph comparing men's and women's salaries by education level

This is the point in the conversation when equal pay haters start talking about choice, which also plays a role in the wage gap. So for their sake, let’s look at an apples-to-apples comparison.

One year out of college (once we’ve ruled out the main paycheck discrepancy offenders), women still take home almost 7 percent less than men who work in similar jobs and circumstances. In other words, a sizable chunk of the wage gap cannot be explained by education, industry, hours worked, or any other measurable factor.

So women in the workforce take home less money than men, period. But what does that say about our society?

On the Today show, Miss Utah was given a second chance to answer the question.

“This is not OK,’’ she said. “It needs to be equal pay for equal work. It’s hard enough already to earn a living, and it shouldn’t be harder just because you’re a woman.”

Unfortunately, it is harder for women to earn a living. And our society is partially to blame for this. We’re still married to outdated gender roles. That’s why pundits panic when they learn that female breadwinners are on the rise. That’s why beauty pageants like Miss USA will continue to objectify women, basing their value on their bikini bods. So let’s leave Powell alone for a moment because the problem is much bigger than her.

But there’s hope when an outdated beauty pageant asks a question about equal pay. We are starting to pay closer attention to women’s issues — and that says good things about society.

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