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Katie Sanders
By Katie Sanders October 10, 2014

Fact-checking Sarah Silverman's viral 'vagina tax' video

Liberal comedian and activist Sarah Silverman isn’t one for discretion, especially when she’s out to make a political point about money and genitalia.

Silverman mused about the "wage gap" in a new video launching a fundraising campaign for the National Women’s Law Center. The wage gap refers to the difference between what men and women earn.

In the video, Silverman’s solution to mismatched earnings is to get a sex change. That’s a joke, but she ticked off statistics that were not. (The video itself is a little NSFW, but here it is if you’re interested.)

"Every year the average woman loses around $11,000 to the wage gap," Silverman says as she sits on a doctor’s exam table in a hospital gown, waiting for her faux sex-change consultation. "Over the course of the working years of her life, that's almost 500 grand."

And, in a phrase you’re not likely to soon forget, she realizes, "That's a $500,000 vagina tax."

Let’s peel the curtain on what men and women earn. Is it really a half-million dollar difference?

What the numbers say

The National Women’s Law Center didn’t get back to us, but an FAQ on the group’s website shows the math. To arrive at Silverman’s $500,000 vagina tax, she used 2013 Census income and poverty data for the median earnings of full-time, year-round workers who are 15 years old and up, regardless of occupation.

The median wage was $39,157 for women and $50,033 for men. The average difference is $10,876, which rounds up to Silverman’s $11,000.

This is basically the same calculation politicians made in 2012 to claim that the average woman makes 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. As PolitiFact, PunditFact and other fact-checkers have noted in earlier examinations, the figure should be used with caution.

It’s hard to say for whom this would be the case, but it’s "a summary measure, just like anything else would be," said Valerie Wilson, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute.

"It may not be experienced in reality by any one person, but that doesn’t make it wrong," said University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen. "It is the average experience, which is meaningful."

Then, Silverman multiplied $11,000 by 40 years to get to $440,000. Why they picked 40 years we’re not sure. There’s no official government figure for the length of the average American career.

In the video, $440,000 becomes almost $500,000. So you can see there already is some generous rounding, as a "tax" that should be $435,040 over 40 years (in present day dollars) becomes almost $500,000.

That’s worth noting, but it’s not the only point of caution.

Other figures for earnings by gender

The Census is not the only available source of earnings by gender.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks average annual weekly median earnings of full-time salary workers using the Current Population Survey.

In 2013, median weekly earnings for women were $706, or $39,520 a year. Men brought in $860 a week, or $44,720 a year. This produces a much smaller average annual earnings difference of $5,200, which using Silverman’s calculation, would translate to $208,000 over a career, not $500,000.

Looking at a one-year snapshot

Silverman’s calculation also is only based on a one-year look, when experts said an examination of a longer period of time would be more useful.

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"I think the average does help, but I'd rather see the lifetime earnings calculated for the mean and median female worker rather than extrapolating from the average for one year," said Tara Sinclair, a George Washington University economist.

The primary difference between the Census and BLS data is BLS does not include self-employed workers. Meanwhile, the Census does not include some other workers, such as teachers and seasonal and construction workers.

Men work more hours

Some economists, such as those at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, prefer to examine hourly wages by gender because it includes part-time (fewer than 35 hours) workers, who are more often women.

In 2012, the latest year for which data is available, median hourly earnings for women were $11.99. For men, it was $13.88.

But hourly data is not without its drawbacks, as it does not account for salaried workers, which typically earn more than hourly workers.

Also, women tend to work fewer hours than men, which could mean that part of the reason men earn more is because they work more.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men worked 8.34 hours a day on average in 2013. Women worked 7.73 hours a day on average in 2013. Over the course of 40 years, that’s about a 6,000-hour, or more than 700-day difference (without factoring in vacation, etc.)

"At a minimum, I think Sarah Silverman should calculate the tax on being female after adjusting for the number of working hours required to earn the average man’s and the average woman’s annual pay," said Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution. "That would still leave a tax, but it would be a smaller one if Ms. Silverman did indeed forget to adjust for hours worked."

Unpacking the gap

Economists also bristled at Silverman’s suggestion that the gap would disappear if she were a man. It’s widely understood that the wage gap is not entirely due to gender discrimination.

There are a lot of ways to consider the numbers, and the gap shrinks as workers are compared by similar levels of education, occupation and experience. Nurses and cashiers, for example, have closer pay parity.

Still, a gap persists. A 2012 report from the American Association of University Women found a 7 percent "unexplained" pay gap among full-time workers one year after graduating from college in 2009, even when they made similar career and education decisions.

Part of it is career choice, research suggests. More women populate lower-wage jobs than men, more often choosing jobs as receptionists, grade-school teachers and nurses, for example, while men disproportionately select jobs as truck drivers, managers and computer software engineers.

Another factor is the time women take to have children and care for them. Cohen argues that even if women choose to have children or work fewer hours, it is still fair to consider their lifestyle choice a "tax."

"You might be opting into that lifestyle, and still it has a cost," he said, comparing it to a cigarette tax.

One final note: PolitiFact typically frowns upon people deeming something a "tax" when it really isn't. In this case, we think it's clear Silverman is using "tax" as part of a punchline and not referring to a literal government levy on women. So we won't split hairs on this term in our rating.

Our ruling

Silverman said, "Every year the average woman loses around $11,000 to the wage gap," which amounts to "a $500,000 vagina tax" over her working career.

A bulletproof number to illustrate the gender gap remains elusive, and Silverman’s "vagina tax" is a lifetime estimate based on a one-year average.

The economists we spoke to were leery of the $11,000 figure, to a point, and similarly leery of the math to reach $500,000. There are just too many variables to describe the lifetime income-earning potential of "the average woman."

That said, most experts say a pay gap does exist, though it’s smaller when you compare workers with similar experience and education. It’s just that pinpointing specific numbers is problematic.

Silverman’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.


Our Sources

Bloomberg Politics, "Sarah Silverman Ponders Sex Change to Highlight Gender Wage Gap," Oct. 8, 2014

Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Women in the Labor Force: Databook," 2013

Interview with Gary Burtless, Brookings Institution economist, Oct. 8, 2014

Interview with Timothy Ewing, Department of Labor economist, Oct. 9, 2014

Interview with Jim Borbely, BLS Current Population Survey economist, Oct. 8, 2014

Interview with Robert Bernstein, Census Bureau spokesman, Oct. 8, 2014

Email interview with Romina Boccia, Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst, Oct. 9, 2014

Interview with Philip N. Cohen, University of Maryland Department of Sociology professor, Oct. 9, 2014

Interview with Tara Sinclair, George Washington University economist, Oct. 9, 2014

Interview with Valerie Wilson, Economic Policy Institute economist, director of race, ethnicity and the economy, Oct. 9, 2014

National Women’s Law Center, NWLC Analysis of 2013 Census Poverty Data, accessed Oct. 8, 2014

National Women’s Law Center, Equal Payback Project, accessed Oct. 8, 2014

PolitiFact Georgia, "Carter exaggerates wage gap," April 4, 2014

PolitiFact Georgia, "Stokes right on broad gender pay claim, missteps on specifics," Sept. 15, 2014

PolitiFact, "Barack Obama ad says women are paid "77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men," June 21, 2012

PolitiFact, "Barack Obama, in State of the Union, says women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns," Jan. 29, 2014

Washington Post’s The Fact-Checker, "The White House’s use of data on the gender wage gap," June 4, 2012

U.S. Census Bureau, "Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2013," Sept. 16, 2014

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