Pay Equity is a Long Term Issue

BlogHer Original Post

I've been reading some sour grapes on anti-feminist blogs, complaining that media outlets are not covering the real economic news, which is that the unemployment rate for men is 7.2%, while it is only 6% for women. Of course, these people rant about how it is easier to fire men than women without fear of a lawsuit and blah blah blah; let's take a moment to weep for the degraded male while evil feminists crush his balls under their clogs. OK.

The more level headed people react to the news by pointing out that the fields hardest hit in these times tend to be dominated by men (like finance; Economix cites Peter E. Kretzmer, senior economist, Bank of America, saying, "Only education and health services gained jobs, picking up 52,000,” which are of course fields with lots of female employees) and that if companies are looking to save money, they'd fire men first since, on average, they make more money than women performing the exact same job.

In fact, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), reminds us that women took a one cent step towards reaching pay equity with men, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2007, female full-time year-round workers earned 78 cents for every $1 men pocketed as the fruits of their labor. (In 2006, this was 77 cents. Oh, progress!) The good news does not end here, folks! I'm delighted to share the data that African-American women earned 63 cents and that Latina women earned 53 cents to every buck earned by a white man. Single women earned 56 cents to the white man's $1. Yes, the buck does stop there. Sigh.

This pay discrepancy is not only critical in terms of the lives it allows women to lead today, but also how it affects our retirement options. Not only can women not save money we haven't earned (to paraphrase AAUW), but we also can't save money when we need to spend every cent to meet our basic needs. Social security benefits - the supposed equalizer - are partially based on how much money we put into the system over the course of our work lives. Well, if we earn less to begin with, then take time out to raise kids, we sure aren't going to max out our social security, either. It is extremely scary to think about.

There are two pieces of legislation that can help address systemic pay discrimination against women. According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, the Paycheck Fairness Act:

...expands damages under the Equal Pay Act and amends its very broad fourth affirmative defense. In addition, the Paycheck Fairness Act calls for a study of data collected by the EEOC and proposes voluntary guidelines to show employers how to evaluate jobs with the goal of eliminating unfair disparities. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives on July 31, 2008.

(For more information, see the National Women's Law Center fact sheet)

According to the National Organization for Women, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act:

...was drafted to overturn the Supreme Court's May decision in the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which dealt a near-fatal blow to underpaid workers' ability to use the protections of civil rights laws to remedy pay discrimination... The House legislation would return us to the longstanding rule (before the Supreme Court changed it in May), which treated each and every discriminatory paycheck as a new discrimination, thus re-starting the 180-day clock.

On a practical level, there are many challenges with implementing true pay equity. Employers do things like use different job titles to justify differences in pay, even when the job descriptions and responsibilities are the same. It can be very hard to prove that people really are doing equal work for unequal pay. Plus, there are issues in terms of the types of work that women may fall into versus those engaged in by men. But when AAUW ran some numbers, controlling for age, hours worked per year, and level of education, they discovered some disturbing evidence. For example, women who wait tables for a living earn 35% less than men who wait tables. (See the AAUW's report, Behind the Wage Gap for a good discussion about this.) Think about this: who is waiting tables at a diner versus at a steakhouse and what are the differences in potential tips? And really, why do I rarely, if ever, see women waiting tables at steakhouses? Is it that women prefer serving $5 omlettes over $100 steaks or that women don't fit the traditional boys club steakhouse server mold, and thus don't get hired?

Wouldn't it be exciting if we could push both bills through Congress and have them on Obama's desk on January 21, 2009, ready to be signed into law?

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