What Miss Utah Should Have Said About Women Earners

Television personality and host Giuliana Rancic (L) looks on as Miss Utah USA Marissa Powell answers a question from a judge during the interview portion of the 2013 Miss USA pageant.
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Television personality and host Giuliana Rancic (L) looks on as Miss Utah USA Marissa Powell answers a question from a judge during the interview portion of the 2013 Miss USA pageant.

Questions of income inequality and gender-based differences in the workforce and have tripped up economists and politicians for years, so perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that Miss Utah USA, 21-year-old Marissa Powell, stumbled when she was asked this question during last night's nationally televised pageant:

"A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?"

The question might have come from pageant judge NeNe Leakes, best known as one of the "Real Housewives of Atlanta," but it was no softball. (For that matter, neither was the question posed to the eventual winner of the Miss USA 2013 title, Miss Connecticut Erin Brady, which covered the Supreme Court's recent decision upholding routine DNA swabs of criminal suspects.) Still, Powell's flubbed answer had the Twitterverse in a tizzy and is getting lots of YouTube attention this morning, drawing comparisons to the famous flub by Miss Teen South Carolina about Americans' knowledge of geography." Here's what Miss Utah said:

"I think we can relate this back to education and how we are ... continuing to try to strive ... to ... figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem. I think especially the men are ... um ... seen as the leaders of this so we need to try to figure out how to ... create education better ... so we can solve this problem. Thank you."

Yes, it's fun for some to mock this answer, and Miss Teen South Carolina's, as examples of why America really does need to "create education better." These cringe-inducing moments are the only times vast swaths of the country pay attention to pageants, despite Donald Trump's marketing efforts. "If moments like this aren't the reason that the Internet got invented in the first place, then I've been using this damn thing completely wrong," Jenni Maier wrote at Crushable.

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Yet the question was an important one, even if the answer was spectacularly botched. And while the internet delights in watching and rewatching Powell's painful clip, let's also consider for a moment what she could have said.

She could have said that the glass ceiling remains a real problem—even when it's self-imposed—and that some companies still fail to ensure equal pay for equal work. If she had looked into the issue as part of her pageant prep, she might have noted that the wage-gap stat people are likely to hear—that women earn 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make—covers full-time workers across the economy, but doesn't compare men and women doing the same work. "Indeed, if you look at men and women working in the same professions, the pay gap is much smaller (though for most professions, it doesn't disappear entirely)," PolitiFact pointed out last year.

Powell could have said that, despite that lingering gap, it may be an encouraging sign that 5.1 million married moms now earn more than their husbands and that the share of married mothers who make more than their husbands has climbed from 4 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 2011, according to the same Pew Research Center report that provided that statistic about women now being the primary earners in 40 percent of households. As University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen told the Washington Post recently: "The decade of the 2000s witnessed the most rapid change in the percentage of married mothers earning more than their husbands of any decade since 1960."

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Powell could have said that the stats make clear that the country is still grappling with the sweeping changes to traditional gender roles that have been reshaping our economy in recent decades, and were accelerated by the Great Recession and its aftermath. She could have said that the American public is still conflicted about women's roles, with 74 percent of Pew respondents say that working moms makes it harder to raise kids and 50 percent saying it makes it harder for a marriage to succeed. She could have noted that 28 percent now agree with the statement that it is generally better for a marriage if a husband earns more than his wife, down from 40 percent in 1997.

Since Powell brought up education, she also could have pointed out that relative pay levels could still change as trends in education continue to favor women—and men keep falling further behind. Today, women are more likely than men to hold bachelor's degrees. In 61 percent of two-parent households, the education level of the man and women are similar, while 23 percent of married women now have more education that their husbands. She could also have said that stagnating real incomes across the board are one of the biggest problems American households and our economy now face.

Powell could have said any of these things. If she had, she might have avoided being the Internet's latest viral sensation—and she might have finished higher than third runner-up. The bigger problem is that we as a society don't yet have all the right answers.

By Yuval Rosenberg, The Fiscal Times