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Use Census data to report on the gender wage gap

June 21, 2016

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The Arizona Republic recently looked at 10 jobs with the largest gender pay gap in the Phoenix area and found that women still make drastically less than men in certain careers in Maricopa County. Data from the Census Bureau and its 2014 American Community Survey formed the basis for the story and yet the same data is readily available so business reporters around the country can easily localize or replicate the story to fit their coverage areas. Here’s how to begin:

Get the Census data

The article and its graphic compared median male earnings in Maricopa County to those of female earnings for workers in 10 different occupations:

  • legal
  • sales and related
  • health diagnosing
  • treating practitioners and other technical
  • building and grounds cleaning
  • fire fighting
  • prevention and other protective service workers
  • management
  • food preparation and serving
  • business and financial operations
  • computer and mathematical

To start on your own similar story, you’ll need to obtain the comparable Census data for your area. The best place to start is the American FactFinder website. Here, you’ll find the data in the American Community Survey and can manipulate it geographically.

The 2014 American Community Survey

For in-depth reporting, you’ll need to see the data from the 2014 American Community Survey organized by occupation. The fastest way to get to this data is via the “Guided Search” function on the American FactFinder website. Once you’re there, follow these steps:

  • Choose the option “I’m looking for information about people.”
  • Choose “Income/Earnings (Individuals)” from the topics options under “Income & Earnings.”
  • Enter your state and the county you want to focus on.
  • In the search results, scroll down, choose “Occupation by Sex and Median Earnings in the Past 12 Months (In 2014 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars) For the Civilian Employed Population 16 Years and Over” and make sure you’re selecting the 2014 one-year estimates.

In the table, the occupations are listed on the left under the “Subject” heading. On the right, you’ll find the data divided into median earnings, median earnings for males and median earnings for females.

What to look for

Step one is to find any major gaps with a meaningful margin of error. But there’s more information that can add depth to your story as well.

At the left of the table, you can change the year and see how the data has changed over time. Are gaps growing or getting smaller? How have certain occupations changed over the years?

You can also go back to “Step 3 Geographies” in the guided search options and look at the data for other counties, your entire state and the country. How does your county compare to similar counties or the rest of the state? Are occupations giving more or less equal pay to women in your county than they are in the rest of the country?

Some data may surprise you. Do you see occupations where the median salary for women is higher than it is for men?

If you have experience with Excel, you’ll want to download the table and manipulate the data to look for even more trends.

Visualize your findings

The Republic piece does a nice job of making its data visual. Using an interactive bar graph, readers can see just how wide the gap is in pay for men and women.

Strive to make any interesting trends you find visual for your audience. For instance, if you’re looking at how wages have changed over time in your county or state, use a line graph and chart the data for men and women side by side. This step helps your readers better grasp how gaps increase, decrease or stay the same.

Add faces to your story

Data is an important part of any business story, but it’s also often just the first step. If you discover an especially interesting trend or comparison within your data, try and put a face to the issue through someone affected by the wage gap.

In the Republic piece, a local city councilwomen served as a central compelling character. Seek out someone working within one of the industries where a large pay gap exists and use their testimony to provide better insight into what’s happening locally. How do local female employees react to being paid less?

Get out and talk to employers and business owners as well. Through your reporting, try to answer the following:

  • Are they concerned about the data?
  • How do they explain the gap?
  • What are they doing to create a level playing field for women in the businesses that they run?


  • Rian Bosse

    Rian Bosse is a PhD student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. He earned his undergraduate degree in English from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2012 and worked for a small daily newspaper, the Daily Journal, in his hometown o...

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