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Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The problem with statistics is that they are almost always seen in a way that supports your own opinions. Whatever your politics or beliefs, bias happens.

Blogger and photographer Joanna Rees showed a great example of this in her recent post on Penn State salaries. Rees posits in her post that not only does Penn State discriminate between men and women, the University also values business over the arts. At this point, I will mention that Rees is working on a PhD in Art Education and she is including her findings in a paper for the Women’s Caucus Enacting Change.

Let’s look a bit closer at the data. On an absolute scale, it is true that male professors in both Smeal and the College of Arts and Architecture earn more than female professors. However, there are several important factors to consider. First, in almost all cases, the male professors have more seniority than the female ones, and there are more of them. I can conclude two things from this information. I could say Penn State doesn’t hire enough women or I could say Penn State is making up for past gender discrimination by hiring more new female professors, who, due to a lack of seniority, earn less than males on average. In reality however, I have no idea what the actual situation is, I just came up with a narrative that fits the data.

In addition, I don’t know why pay differs so greatly between the two colleges, but what is important is they are two different colleges. Each has their own sources of funding, deans, policies and responsibilities. Smeal is called “Smeal” for a reason, after alumni Frank Smeal donated $10 million in 1989 to the college. Also, Smeal is huge, with a faculty of 1,935 compared to Arts and Architecture’s 142. There are so few parallels between them that an accurate comparison is nearly impossible.

I guess my point is that analysis based purely on statistics is inaccurate at best and highly subjective. Does Penn State have a gender pay gap? Are the Arts or Business more important? This report does little to answer the question on its own.

About the Author

Nick Johnson

Nick is a junior majoring in IST (the Internet) and CAS (saying things). He hopes to one day get paid to do this, but for now he is willing to do it for the fame. Besides writing for Onward State, he also puts things on the Internet here.

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