Editor’s note: We had a number of thoughtful comments in response to my piece on the equal pay debate, including this one. Bethany Albertson is an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. — EG 

The statement that “women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes” is supposed to provide a reference point in the debate over pay equity, but actually fails to clarify things in the ongoing dust-up between Gubernatorial candidates Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott. Numbers are certainly helpful, but they rarely tell the whole story. In this case, it’s helpful to look at the numbers alongside the pay practices of the attorney general’s office and the political rhetoric surrounding this debate. This broader view shows that what has become complicated terrain for a conservative state’s rights gubernatorial candidate has an easy answer: just support the law.

Let’s begin with the numbers. The attorney general’s office supplied the Texas Tribune with detailed information on the occupation, tenure, salary and gender of its over 4,000 employees. A quick look at the data tells us that the attorney general’s office looks like most American workplaces: men make more money than women. More specifically, as the San Antonio Express-News reported, women working as assistant attorneys general make, on average, $3,526 less than their male counterparts.

But simple comparisons of average salaries alone fail to account for the importance of experience or occupation – a fact pointed out by Erica Grieder of Texas Monthly. While there are roughly equal numbers of male and female attorneys in the AG’s office, women vastly outnumber men in the lower paid non-attorney positions, driving down the average salary for women. Salary comparisons are also complicated by the fact that many women take time off work to have children and care for them, and therefore have fewer years on the job than their male colleagues. Women might also have shorter tenures on average if they are overrepresented among more recent hires.

These data, therefore, beg for what we in the social sciences call a multivariate model, one in which we estimate the effect that gender has on salary while simultaneously disentangling the effects of factors such as experience and occupation. The multivariate model helps us to see whether years in office accounts for the pay discrepancy.

Based on my analysis, it turns out that each additional year of experience corresponds with a $992 increase in salary – if you’re a man. If you’re a woman, the increase is about $200 less, or $798 per year of experience. Relatedly, the model predicts that a female attorney should expect to make less after 10 years of service ($76,727) than a male attorney makes after 5 years ($77,237). There is a hopeful sign for pay equity among more recent hires. Among attorneys hired in the last 5 years, the difference in the median salaries between men and women is just about $300, suggesting that the Attorney General’s office is moving in the right direction.

Keep in mind that while the numbers describe the differences, they don’t address more systemic issues of gender equity and the appropriate scope of state power. Women work less continuously than men because they are more likely to choose to spend time at home with their children, or to take on other family responsibilities. A very real question that the data bring up is whether we should effectively punish women for this absence from the workforce above and beyond their lost years of work, as the data indicate we do.

Regarding Texas’s role in addressing pay imbalances, some argue, in the same breath, that there are existing avenues for redress, but also that these laws are ineffective. The effectiveness of these laws is certainly open to question, but it’s important to remember that the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act has only been on the books since 2009, and that it was enacted with the express purpose of uncovering practices that often take years, if not decades, to uncover. Its effects could be manifest in increased litigation, equalization of salaries, or some combination of the two, but any effects are likely to take place over a significant period of time.

In addition, these laws are as much about disincentivizing a practice as they are about supplying a remedy. If Texas were to pass a state-level version of the law, it would make clear that Texas, like the federal government, takes gender discrimination seriously and that anyone considering paying a woman less for the same work as a man should be wary because the discriminated party has multiple avenues by which to seek relief.

Another major argument advanced in the equal pay kerfuffle has nothing to do with numbers. The argument that Governor Rick Perry made when vetoing Texas’s version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is partly that the federal law applies in Texas. But this argument defies credulity and seems to contradict the notion of federalism that the state’s GOP so often trumpets. Texas’s law would not duplicate the federal law; it would expand a plaintiff’s ability to seek redress for discriminatory pay practices in the state court system. More broadly, the argument about duplicative laws raises an important question: is it now an operating procedure of the Texas government to no longer enact any laws that duplicate or substantially overlap with federal laws? How might we determine when it is necessary or worthwhile to affirmatively duplicate a federal statute?

Texas Republicans have asserted state sovereignty over a number of issues in recent years, partly on the basis of their irrevocable confidence in Texas’s ability to do things better. If Texans have a right to pay equity, then shouldn’t the state government provide those protections rather than trusting the federal government to do so?

Herein lies the difficulty of Abbott’s position. He has made it clear that he supports the idea of equal pay, and in a slight contrast to Perry, he has said that he supports both the state and federal laws on the subject. But the practices of the office he is in charge of, and his unwillingness to support a stronger state law to that effect, leads one to ask a simple question: Abbott may support equal pay, but what is he going to do about it?