Pirate Apprenticeships

February 29, 2016

by Jay Marshall Wolman

How quaint the ways of Paradox!
At common sense she gaily mocks!
Though counting in the usual way,
Years twenty-one I’ve been alive.
Yet, reckoning by my natal day,
Yet, reckoning by my natal day,
I am a little boy of five!

-The Pirates of Penzance, “When You had Left Our Pirate Fold”

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, Frederic was apprenticed to a pirate (his nursemaid misheard “pilot”) until he reached twenty-one.  He was born, however, on February 29, leap day.  Thus, when he had lived twenty-one years, he had only celebrated five and a quarter birthdays, and a quandary ensued as to whether Frederic was liberated from his apprenticeship.

Last night, the U.S. Department of Labor posted the following during the Oscars:

The problem, however, is that statistics without context are meaningless.  Simply looking at the numbers doesn’t tell the whole story.  By the same token, I can truthfully write that, on average, women suffer 75% of the number of fatal workplace injuries men do.  That is, relative to hours worked, women accounted for 43% of workplace fatalities and men 57%.  (43/57 is approximately 75%)  But that’s even accounting for hours worked.  Otherwise, women died at work only 9% as much as men.  If you want workplace equality, I guess a few lucky ladies will have to step up and volunteer to suffer some more workplace fatalities.

Except, of course, this doesn’t tell the whole picture.  Take a look at the deadliest jobs.  Men tend to choose those jobs disproportionately, thereby putting themselves in risk of greater harm.  But looking at the raw numbers alone doesn’t paint a full picture–if women chose those professions at equal numbers, worked equal hours, and took equal risks, then we’d probably have fatality equality.

The same issues arise in looking at the wage gap.  A 2009 US DOL commissioned study reported no significant gender-based wage gap when you control for profession, work history, hours worked, etc., that is, the choices made by workers.  Other studies do find some residual, unexplained gender gap–but that is what our focus should be on–fighting specific instances of discrimination.  Otherwise, if the DOL were truly serious about fighting the 79% figure, they should be advocating against women as caregivers, against women choosing to study the humanities, and against women who won’t work weekends, and training women to be orthodontists and petroleum engineers.  But, piloting the false 79% narrative is statistical piracy.