President Barack Obama’s action Tuesday to address the inequality between what women and men are paid was more symbolic than substantial. But that doesn’t make the underlying issue any less meaningful.
Obama issued an executive order in honor of Equal Pay Day – the day that women finally catch up to what men earned in previous year – that will prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against workers who reveal their salary. He also ordered the Labor Department to come up with rules for contractors to report data about salaries paid by gender and race. Not exactly groundbreaking considering the first bill he signed into law as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Still, knowledge is power, and giving women the knowledge of their co-workers’ pay could empower women to demand to be treated fairly. Secrecy, as Obama pointed out, fosters discrimination.
Obama also pushed for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have extended many of those same protections to all working women. But Senate Republicans blocked it. It mattered little; there was no companion bill in the House.
Pay equity is a real issue considering women are the primary or co-breadwinners in 6 of 10 households, working full time as a parent yet collecting substantially less pay. The White House says, on average, full-time working women earn 77 cents to every dollar earned by men. That figure is in dispute. The ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute says the gap is only 88 cents. The U.S. Labor Department puts it at 81 cents. Take your pick.
The point is that there is a gap. Unequal pay – 23 cents less or 12 cents less – is unfair. It’s even more unfair for women who have children. For an unmarried, single women the difference is quite small – only around 4 percent. After a woman exits the workforce to have a child, she earns 7.5 percent less upon her return. Another child, another 8 percent loss. And, according to the Pew Research Center, the gaps vary state to state. In Wyoming, women make 64 cents for every dollar a man earns.
That this inequity has followed us well into the 21st century is unacceptable, but it shows how deeply embedded it is in American culture – as do the excuses.
Even Obama’s White House has a problem with gender pay equality. The AEI released its own report intended to deflate Obama’s announcement about by pointing out women in the White House just 88 cents for each dollar men earn. Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney didn’t dispute it, though he argued the data lumped all workers together from the high to the low, rather than looking at job classifications. There are some top-level women in Obama’s administration but more women at lower levels.
Well, yeah. That’s the heart of the nation’s pay inequity issue; it’s more a problem of job equality than paycheck parity. Women earn less money in the workforce on average because they inordinately populate lower-paid jobs across all industries and economic levels. This extends to public sector, too. Traditionally male jobs – police officers – typically get paid more than traditionally female public service jobs – schoolteachers. Worse, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly every occupation – including those where women dominate, such as school teaching and nursing.
We don’t know if this issue will resonate with women well enough to have an impact on November’s elections. The Democrats clearly hope it will, the Republicans are betting it won’t. But wage injustice hurts everyone. Conversely, fixing this problem would surely help create more stable families. And that would help everyone.