Too little, too late
After 51 years, why are women still waiting for equal pay?
By Danielle Elliott 03/27/2014
March is Women’s History Month. The news should be filled with glowing stories of women’s rights and the successes women have achieved. The mantra “We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” makes us all feel good, but upon reflection, is it really true?
President Barack Obama owes his presidency to women, who gave him the votes he needed to offset the preferences of our XY-chromosomed citizens. Yet what has he offered to achieve a more balanced — let alone “perfect” — union for his female supporters, who remain second-class citizens when it comes to wages?
Yes, we won the abortion battle by helping re-elect President Obama. With likely openings to fill on the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade promises to remain the law of the land.
But what about the elephant in the room barely mentioned since his election? Remember the call for “equal pay for equal work?”
It’s been a half-century since women demonstrated in the streets for passage of the 1963 Equal Pay and 1964 Civil Rights Acts; for Republicans, that passage was enough. In 1963, women earned 59 cents for every dollar men made doing the same job. At last count, women earned 77 cents on the dollar. It has taken more than 50 years to make just 18 more cents.
In his second presidential debate, Obama expressed hope that his daughters would be paid as much as a man for the same job, and repeated that call during his recent Valencia College address on economics. He called the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act early in his administration a big step toward ending that disparity. No doubt the legislation won him some votes. But the Ledbetter Act only offered narrow relief, giving women the right to file complaints against company pay decisions that the US Supreme Court had rejected on the grounds of timeliness in Ledbetter’s case.
Meanwhile, the Paycheck Fairness Act has been rejected by Congress along party lines numerous times, as recently as last year. That bill would have enabled women to demand fair treatment by giving employees information about salaries in their company and requiring employers to justify any wage discrepancies.
According to legislative experts, the bill now has a less than 1 percent chance of being enacted. Obama said the solution to this stalled legislation was to elect more women to Congress, and is using his political clout to “Give America a Raise” by increasing the minimum wage.
Testifying before Congress in 2010, an economist reported that studies “always find that some portion of the wage gap is unexplained,” even after controlling for measurable factors assumed to influence earnings. That unexplained portion of the wage gap is attributed to gender.
Why then should women have to wait any longer for equal pay?
A big reason for the pay differential may be the cost equalizing wages would impose on small businesses. However, the marketplace explanation has always been that this is due to women interrupting their careers to give birth or raise their children. Yet, if women are working the same job and are equally or better educated, just as experienced and equally productive as men, then why aren’t they getting the same wages? It’s not a matter of giving women raises. It’s a matter of ending discrimination.
The Great Recession and the long crawl back have highlighted the need for economic parity. During the recession, employers were slower to fire women, but the subsequent losses of public sector jobs forced large numbers of women to join the lines at unemployment offices. During the recovery women have been hired last and now outnumber unemployed men, resulting in more women in poverty than ever before — 17.8 million at last count. Of these, 7.8 million are in extreme poverty with incomes beneath half the poverty line.
The prevailing explanation for these frightening trends is this: Society does not value women’s occupations, such as teaching and nursing, so these jobs are not a priority in the recovery. The government is prohibited from wage discrimination, so women in public service jobs are paid the same as men (and both earn more than in the private sector). Once their public sector jobs were eliminated, women were forced into private sector jobs that not only were lower paying, but did not pay the sexes equally, pushing many previously self-sufficient women into poverty.
Statistics clearly show the importance of women in the economy. Since 2010, women have accounted for more than 50 percent of the workforce. American women now earn 57 percent of bachelor degrees and 59 percent of master’s degrees. More than half of medical students and nearly half of law school students are women. They are also the sole supporters of millions of families. Women shouldn’t accept a system that doesn’t value their work and forces them to seek food stamps and other welfare rather than pay them their due.
Instead of waiting for the system to decide that women are worthy, women should wield their economic clout. Forget burning bras a la the 1960s. All women need do is stop buying them — or anything else — from companies that don’t give women equal pay for equal work.
Isn’t it time for women to act once again in their own best interest?
Danielle Elliott is a Pasadena resident and longtime community activist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.