A friend put this up on Facebook: and I couldn’t help but be interested. In Ontario we have an equivalent Act (or I suppose in Canada we have approximately equivalent legislation, much of which has been enacted by the provinces) and the result was our “Pay Equity Act” of 1972. “The purpose of this Act is to redress systemic gender discrimination in compensation for work performed by employees in female job classes.” (Queen’s Printer, Ontario, 2013) One of the reasons I’m interested is that I currently work for the Pay Equity Commission, which was born out of the Act. I do database analysis and GIS for the Commission, automating some of the in-depth work we do with wage data. It’s interesting work; and an application of GIS that has not typically been seen in the social sciences. At least not in Ontario.
One of the first things I helped to replicate was the gender wage gap from census data. The updated report should come out soon, but the one from 2008 is on the Commission’s web site. As of five years ago, women in Ontario earned (on average) ~84% of what men earned (Ontario Pay Equity Commission, 2008). Statistics from the U.S. can also be divided by state (Forbes, 2013) and work out to a national average of about 77%. (Arkansas, my adopted home state, is right at that national average.)
The U.S. does have its “Equal Pay Act” (EPA), passed in 1963: that was intended to solve this problem. And it did: or at least it helped to make it a bit better. However, the EPA does allow for a variety of defences (four of them) that can be used to justify different wages between employees. The first three are logical: seniority, merit, or the quantity/quality of production. All of these are related to business needs But the fourth is a bit broader: a differential based on any other factor other than sex. (A bit?) Unscrupulous companies have used this “any other factor” to justify all kinds of reasons as to why men should be paid more than women. It turns out that “courts have, despite Supreme Court interpretations to the contrary, applied it in ways that undermine protections against pay discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act is designed to address these misinterpretations.” (National Women’s Law Center, 2011).
Critics of the Paycheck Fairness Act, like Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute, argue that the Act has done its job and does not need to be changed. “[T]here are lots of other reasons men might earn more than women, including differences in education, experience and job tenure.” (New York Times, 2010) Good point, Ms. Hoff Sommers: strangely, though: the Act allows for those “reasons”. Remember those first three defences I mentioned? But business has convinced courts that other reasons can cause the wage gap, and that’s where discrimination comes in.
Some might not call it discrimination. It’s just greed, and capitalism. Senior managers wanting the most for themselves. And women just happen to be the weakest link. They’re the ones who can most easily be paid less in order that Mr. Director can earn more. So it’s just survival of the fittest. But isn’t that discrimination wrapped in capitalist clothing?
Ms. Sommers wants to “celebrat[e] its [the Act’s] success in substantially, if not yet completely, overcoming sex-based workplace discrimination.” (Ibid) Indeed. The wage gap has improved in the U.S. “During the years from 1960 to 1980… the relative average wage of female to male workers remained unchanged (at about 60%)” (New York University, 1989) Now it’s 77%. Over 50 years, the wage gap has thus closed 17%… that’s 42.5% of the way to equality. Americans are less than halfway there. Now I’m not sure, Ms. Sommers, but to me that doesn’t sound like “substantial” gains. It’s not yet time to celebrate. Another study projected that based on past gains, the gender wage gap will not reach parity until 2058 (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2013). That is not within my working lifetime, nor even within my children’s working lifetime. At the rate we’re going, it will take until my grandchildren are building their careers for the compensation landscape to be equitable. Something needs to speed up the process, and the Paycheck Act is an attempt to do that.
Now in one sense I might not care. After all, I’m gay and I don’t actually have any children or grandchildren, so many with a perspective like Ms. Hoff Sommers might think that I have no reason to care about future generations (Bowles, 2013). But I do. Because I interpret Paycheck Fairness (with or without the capitalization) as the right thing to do.
Understand that this is all based on averages, across the board: across sectors and levels and job classes. There are lots of reasons why women make choices that result in wage disparity: that is also a reflection of gender differences, though it has nothing to do with employers. Many women have achieved parity with their peers, and are quite content with where they are. Ms. Somers sounds like she has done that, and reached equality. But again: these are statistics: numbers don’t lie. For every Ms. Somers who’s out there, who’s achieved that 100% compared to men, there is another woman who is at only half (54%) her pay potential. The Paycheck Fairness Act may not be able to correct everything, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. And it gets the conversation going.