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Granite State Rumblings: Dispelling Myths Around The Pay Gap

Next Tuesday, April 12th, is National Equal Pay Day. The day typically comes in early April and represents how far into the current year an average female employee would have to work to earn what her male counterpart brought home in the last calendar year.

Equal Pay Day comes more than a half century after President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which aimed “to prohibit discrimination on account of sex in the payment of wages by employers.” Despite that legislation and labor laws enacted since, the earnings gap between American men and women remains wide.

While searching the Department of Labor website for information about Equal Pay Day, I came across this great blog post by Dr. Pamela Coukos, a Senior Program Advisor at the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. It was written in 2012 but is still relevant today.

Myth Busting the Pay Gap

Surely it can’t be true. President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. The very next year Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned sex discrimination at work. Yet more than fifty years later, women still make less than men.

We live today in a world where women run Fortune 500 companies, sit on the Supreme Court, and push back the frontiers of knowledge. We live during a time when more young women than men hold bachelor’s degrees, and when women make up almost half of all new law school graduates. Given all our progress, there must be some explanation behind the fact that women still lag behind men when it comes to pay equity.

The Paycheck Fairness Act has failed to advance in the Senate, triggering a new round of conversation about the pay gap and what the numbers really mean. Research shows that even though equal pay for women is a legal right, it is not yet a reality. Despite the evidence, myths that women’s choices or other legitimate factors are the “real” cause of the pay gap persist. So does confusion about how to measure the gap and what figures to use. That’s why today, we are going to bust a few myths.

MYTH: Saying women only earn 77 cents on the dollar is a huge exaggeration – the “real” pay gap is much smaller than that (if it even exists).

REALITY: The size of the pay gap depends on how you measure it. The most common estimate is based on differences in annual earnings (currently about 23 cents difference per dollar). Another approach uses weekly earnings data (closer to an 18- or 19-cent difference). Analyzing the weekly figures can be more precise in certain ways, like accounting for work hours that vary over the course of the year, and less accurate in others, like certain forms of compensation that don’t get paid as weekly wages. No matter which number you start with, the differences in pay for women and men really add up. According to one analysis by the Department of Labor’s Chief Economist, a typical 25-year-old woman working full time would have already earned $5,000 less over the course of her working career than a typical 25-year old man. If that earnings gap is not corrected, by age 65, she will have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars over her working lifetime. We also know that women earn less than men in every state and region of the country, and that once you factor in race, the pay gap for women of color is even larger.

MYTH: There is no such thing as the gender pay gap – legitimate differences between men and women cause the gap in pay, not discrimination.

REALITY: Decades of research shows a gender gap in pay even after factors like the kind of work performed and qualifications (education and experience) are taken into account. These studies consistently conclude that discrimination is the best explanation of the remaining difference in pay. Economists generally attribute about 40% of the pay gap to discrimination – making about 60% explained by differences between workers or their jobs. However, even the “explained” differences between men and women might be more complicated. For example: If high school girls are discouraged from taking the math and science classes that lead to high-paying STEM jobs, shouldn’t we in some way count that as a lost equal earnings opportunity? As one commentator put it recently, “I don’t think that simply saying we have 9 cents of discrimination and then 14 cents of life choices is very satisfying.” In other words, no matter how you slice the data, pay discrimination is a real and persistent problem that continues to shortchange American women and their families.

MYTH: But the pay gap is not my problem. Once you account for the jobs that require specialized skills or education it goes away.

REALITY: The pay gap for women with advanced degrees, corporate positions, and high paying, high skill jobs is just as real as the gap for workers overall. In a recent study of newly trained doctors, even after considering the effects of specialty, practice setting, work hours and other factors, the gender pay gap was nearly $17,000 in 2008. Catalyst reviewed 2011 government data showing a gender pay gap for women lawyers, and that data confirms that the gap exists for a range of professional and technical occupations. In fact, according to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that used information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women earn less than men even within the same occupations. Despite differences in the types of jobs women and men typically perform, women earn less than men in male dominated occupations (such as managers, software developers and CEO’s) and in those jobs commonly filled by women (like teachers, nurses and receptionists). In a recent review of 2010 Census data, Bloomberg found only one of 285 major occupations where women’s median pay was higher than that of men – personal care and service workers. Because the data showed a particularly large pay gap in the financial sector, Bloomberg suggested that for women on Wall Street, shining shoes was the best way to earn more than the men.

MYTH: Women are responsible for the pay gap because they seek out flexible jobs or choose to work fewer hours. Putting family above work is why women earn less.

REALITY: Putting aside whether it’s right to ask women (or men) to sacrifice financially in order to work and have a family, those kinds of choices aren’t enough to explain away the gender pay gap. The gender gap in pay exists for women working full time. Taking time off for children also doesn’t explain gaps at the start of a career. And although researchers have addressed various ways that work hours or schedule might or might not explain some portion of the wage gap, there may be a “motherhood penalty.” This is based on nothing more than the expectation that mothers will work less. Researchers have found that merely the status of being a mother can lead to perceptions of lowered competence and commitment and lower salary offers.

MYTH: We don’t need to do anything, the gender pay gap will eventually go away by itself.

REALITY: It has been nearly fifty years since Congress mandated equal pay for women, and we still have a pay gap. There is evidence that our initial progress in closing the gap has slowed. We can’t sit back and wait decades more. Just this year the Department of Labor launched an app challenge, working to give women the tools they need to know their worth. My office continues to increase its enforcement of requirements that federal contractors pay workers without discriminating on the basis of race or gender. And we are teaming up with other members of the National Equal Pay Task Force to ensure a coordinated federal response to equal pay enforcement. You can read more about our work on equal pay here.

The pay gap isn’t a myth, it’s a reality – and it’s our job to fix it.

Here is a look at where the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 862 and H.R. 1619)) currently stand from GovTrack.us.

Much has been made in recent years of the gender-based wage gap, with the oft-cited number from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that full-time female workers make 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. (Although some studies have indicated that the gap is negligible or virtually nonexistent after controlling for certain variables.) The main bill in this Congress to close the gap is the Paycheck Fairness Act, S. 862 and H.R. 1619, introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in the Senate and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT3) in the House.

This bill contains several proposed changes to federal law. It would amend the Equal Pay Act of 1963, currently the primary law governing this issue, to limit when employers can pay differently to “bona fide factors, such as education, training, or experience.” It would require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to collect data on compensation, hiring, termination, and promotion sorted by sex.

It would also prevent employers from retaliating against employees for inquiring about or disclosing wage information at a company — perhaps the main method employees have of discovering such a gap in the first place. And it would “make employers who violate sex discrimination prohibitions liable in a civil action for damages.”

What supporters say

Virtually every congressional Democrat has signed on has a co-sponsor.

Mikulski said, “Equal pay is not just for our pocketbooks, it’s about family checkbooks and getting it right in the law books. The Paycheck Fairness Act ensures that women will no longer be fighting on their own for equal pay for equal work.” President Obama has also endorsed the legislation, saying “When women succeed here in America then the whole country succeeds… I’ve got two daughters, I expect them to be treated the same as somebody’s sons who are on the job.”

What opponents say

However, not everybody agrees. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA5), the highest-ranking woman in Republican leadership, said “Many ladies I know feel like they are being used as pawns and find it condescending that Democrats are trying to use this issue as a political distraction from the failures of their economic policies.” In fact, notably, not even a single Republican woman has signed on or signaled her support.

The bill faces a steep uphill climb in the Republican-controlled Congress. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI1) has voted against the House version multiple times. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has accused the legislation of being a “‘messaging bill… These are bills designed intentionally to fail so that Democrats can make campaign ads about them failing.” He also mocked the bills as being introduced by Democrats to “blow a few kisses to their powerful pals on the left” and that its main goal was so “The Democrats are doing everything they can to change the subject from the nightmare of Obamacare.” Republicans also warn that the bills would increase lawsuits, which in turn would raise the cost of doing business in America.

One Republican supporter

Only one Republican in either chamber has cosponsored the bill: Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ4). Smith was one of only three Republicans to vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation President Obama signed during his presidency in 2009, which extended the length of time women had to file wage discrimination lawsuits. The other two Republicans who voted in favor are both still serving — Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY1) and Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ7) — but neither have signed on as a co-sponsor to this bill.

What to expect

Both the House and Senate version have not received consideration since being introduced in March 2015 to their respective committees: Education and the Workforce Committee in the House; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Senate.

The bill (or a close variation of it) has been introduced in every Congress since 1997, with current Democratic presidential candidate and former Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) the lead sponsor of its 2005–06 and 2007–08 incarnations. The closest it came to enactment was passage by the then-Democratic House in 2009, but although the Senate voted in favor with 58 votes, that wasn’t enough to overcome the 60-vote barrier needed to dispel a filibuster





About MaryLou Beaver

New Hampshire Campaign Director Every Child Matters Education Fund
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