Equal Pay for Equal Work Should Not Be a Radical Idea

By Bridget Reardon

The idea that an employer can pay a woman less than a man for doing the exact same job should be ridiculous. It’s 2016 after all. But according to an analysis released last week by the Democratic staff of the U.S. Congressional Joint Economic Committee, women in the U.S., on average, are paid only 79 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

This past Tuesday, women across the nation bemoaned “Equal Pay Day,” the day to which women, on average, have to work in the current year to be paid what their male counterparts were paid by the close of the last calendar year. But, Equal Pay Day, sadly, doesn’t even tell us the whole story since many women of color face even larger pay gaps. Black women working full-time, year round, for example, are paid 60 cents—and Latinas only 55 cents—for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man. Black women have to work until the end of August, and Latinas almost until November, before their respective “Equal Pay Day” arrives.

And, yes, even when women are actually doing the exact same job, they are paid less than men. The Joint Economic Committee (JEC) found that among nurses, women are paid 90 percent of what men are paid; among lawyers, women are paid 83 percent of what men are paid; and among financial managers, women are paid 67 percent of what men are paid.

Students also beware: women graduating from college graduate into the gender pay gap. The American Association of University Women has found that just one year out of college, women who were working full time are paid, on average, 82 percent of what their male peers are paid. Even after accounting for occupation, college major, and employment sector, about one-third of this pay gap “cannot be explained by any of the factors commonly understood to affect earnings,” except perhaps discrimination.

Why do white men make so much more money than their female coworkers?

One reason high on my list is lack of representation at the top. Simply put: women get paid less because the people who run the workplace don’t look like them.

Women make up only about 4% of S&P 1500 CEOs and 16 percent of board members at those companies, according to data in the JEC report, and women of color were totally unrepresented in more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies as recently as 2013. That means the people on the cutting edge of business in our country—the people setting the standards for the larger business community—do not adequately represent half of the population. When women aren’t represented in the boardroom, their experiences and needs are more likely to go unnoticed or be swept under the rug and ignored.  Issues like equal pay and paid family leave become issues that corporations can – and do – cut corners on. Increasing gender diversity on corporate boards may therefore be one way to help close the gender wage gap.

Occupational segregation also contributes to the gender pay gap. Even though women outnumber men on many college campuses, women are funneled into career fields that pay substantially less than men. For example, according to the Joint Economic Committee report, women earn more than 60 percent of degrees in 9 of the 10 lowest-paying fields of study, but less than 30 percent of degrees in 7 of the 10 highest-paying fields.

But, even when we look within occupations, women make less. An analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that out of 119 occupations, there were only 4 where women earned more than men and only 1 occupation—bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks—where women have the same median weekly earnings as men.

Ensuring fair pay for everyone should be part of every feminist college student’s social justice agenda. Luckily there are concrete actions for us to take:

First, we can tell our Senators and Representative to support the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for discussing their pay—something that, unbelievably, is actually allowed. The Act would also help workers file class action lawsuits in equal pay cases—a change that could help folks get their day in court—and permit judges to order discriminatory employers to pay punitive damages in addition to back pay, something that is not currently allowed for wage discrimination based on sex.

Second, we can support not only equal pay for equal work, but also fair pay for comparable work. Many times, because of occupational segregation that is bolstered by sex discrimination in education and other gender-based opportunity gaps, women are clustered into certain jobs and men into others, even though those jobs may be equivalent in other ways. The Fair Pay Act, which was introduced in the House this session, would therefore provide equal pay for comparable work. This bill would help workers who are paid less for doing  jobs that are equivalent in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions, even if the jobs themselves are not exactly the same.

Third, we can tell our Senators and Representative to support the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA is a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would help ensure that one’s rights were not be denied on the basis of sex. Currently, there is no constitutional prohibition on sex-discrimination in the U.S. Constitution and sex-based classifications in the law, including those that impact the LGBTQ community, do not receive the same kind of scrutiny in the courts, meaning that sex-discrimination is more likely to be found permissible under our laws. The ERA would give women discriminated against work a stronger legal tool—the Constitution!—to argue for the realization of their rights.

The days of paying people less, of treating people like they are less, because of who they are should be behind us. But Equal Pay Day makes it clear that we have a long way to go.

By Bridget Reardon

I'm a Political Science major with a minor in American Politics, and a Concentration in Legal Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. I'm a Spring 2016 Intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation. I love red lipstick, lush bath products, and all types of dogs.

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