Yesterday I picked up my Wall Street Journal and read an opinion piece “Washington’s Equal Pay Obsession” arguing that the Paycheck Fairness Act is unnecessary because, in a nutshell, women don’t face rampant pay discrimination. Instead, the author asserted, the wage gap exists because women are mothers.
So let’s break this down.
First, there is ample evidence that women – regardless of their parental status - do face pay discrimination. Yes, part of the wage gap is a result of occupational choices and other factors. No one denies that. Most economists agree, however, that no matter how many variables you control for an unexplained wage gap between men and women persists. For example, Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn did an excellent breakdown of the wage gap in 2007 and identified that 41% of the wage gap between men and women could not be explained by controlling for variables. Regardless of the precise percentage of the wage gap, we have a responsibility to ensure that no one in this country makes less as a result of his or her gender.
Wage discrimination is real.
Just ask Lilly Ledbetter. She is a mother. She didn’t seek a “less stressful work environment” than her male counter parts. And she was paid roughly 30% less. If she had been allowed to share information about her pay with her colleagues she would have realized she was being paid less than men with less experience.
But Lilly couldn’t bring that case. She could have lost her job if she discussed her pay with her colleagues. The Paycheck Fairness Act would provide that protection. The author is right there are a lot of laws aimed at this problem – but because they don’t provide basic tools like pay transparency, discrimination persists.
Where employees know how their pay compares to that of their peers they are better able to advocate for themselves and ensure discrimination does not occur. For example, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research recently conducted a survey that shows that only 14% of public sector workers feel that discussions of pay are discouraged or prohibited. In the federal government, the wage gap between men and women is only 11%. Conversely, in the private sector, the survey showed that 61% of employees are discouraged or prohibited from talking about salary information. The wage gap in the broader economy is much larger. It’s common sense that in order to identify and prevent discrimination, employees have to know how their pay compares to that of their peers and that pay would be more equal where workplaces are more open.
Second, lots of women who are parents don’t take time off or seek flexible schedules. This is particularly true in tough economic times when families increasingly rely on women’s income. That’s one of reasons why, for the first time, women now make up nearly half of all workers on US payrolls. In fact, now more than ever women are the primary breadwinners for their families. As families depend more on women’s wages, eliminating wage discrimination is also critical for middle class economic security - families who are working hard can hardly afford to lose part of a paycheck to discrimination.
Motherhood should not be used as a scapegoat here. BLS reports that in 2009, 64% of women in the workforce were not parents at all. And many still are paid less than their male counter parts.
Third, “career breaks” do not necessarily equate with loss of skill. Taking a year or ten off to stay home with kids doesn’t necessarily mean a parent has lost skills.
The Paycheck Fairness Act gives women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace. For example, the legislation allows employees to inquire about wages or share salary information without fear of reprisals. The Act closes loopholes that make it harder for women to challenge being paid different wages for the same work, and it ensures that women who prove their case are compensated fairly.
Women deserve these protections.
Terrell McSweeny is Domestic Policy Advisor to the Vice President