Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Yes, women are paid less than men

To begin with, let's dispense with the idea that we no longer have income inequality in the U.S. I know, you're thinking, surely women aren't still being paid less than men for doing the same job! After all, President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law 50 years ago. Problem solved, right?

If you think so, take a look at this 2009 graph from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

No matter how you break it down (by ethnicity, education level, type of job, etc.), men make more than women. On average, women make 77 cents per every dollar earned by men based on annual earnings and 81 cents per dollar based on weekly earnings.

That's because it has been next to impossible to enforce the Equal Pay Act and a recent Supreme Court decision has made it all the harder.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. In that case, a female supervisor (Lily Ledbetter) complained that she was being paid less than men for doing the same job (she was also being sexually harassed, but leave that aside). The court ruled that she had brought her suit too late. She should have complained within 180 days of receiving her first unfair paycheck. Never mind that the employees in her company were forbidden from discussing, let alone comparing their wages. According to the Court, by the time Ledbetter discovered that she’d been discriminated against, it was too late to sue. They reached this decision despite the fact that she was still being paid less than men at the time of her lawsuit!

Things improved slightly in 2009, when President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Among its provisions, it resets the 180 day filing limit with each discriminatory paycheck, not just the very first one. This means that, going forward, women may have an easier time suing if they find out they’ve been discriminated against. Further attempts to equalize pay have fallen flat. In the past few months, the Paycheck Fairness Act was killed in the U.S. House of Representatives and Governor Rick Perry vetoed the Texas version of the Lily Ledbetter Act.

So we've established that women are paid less than men and that this isn't likely to change anytime soon. Now for the fun part where I get to speculate on why income inequality persists. 

You may be surprised to learn that I don't think this discrimination is entirely due to any specific animus against women. I think companies will gladly pay anyone as little as they can and women in our society simply have less power than men do. This is corroborated by the fact that minorities also make less than white people. In other words, it’s nothing personal, companies just take whatever advantages they can. 

It is specifically against women in that little girls are often discouraged from pursuing higher paying technology and engineering jobs. Even worse, adult women are often overlooked for managerial and executive positions. This perpetuates the lack of power women have to fix the system. 

Since people don’t like to admit that our culture systematically preys on the weak, they come up with excuses for why women get paid less than men. Here are a couple of them.
  • Women in their childbearing years are more likely to leave the workforce. Companies that go to great lengths to train employees for specific jobs don’t want that time and money to go to waste on employees who may leave soon after completing their training. 
There are two problems with this argument. First, while this may be an argument against hiring certain people, it isn’t a reason for discriminating against people who already have the job. No one is suggesting that a woman who works part time earn as much as man working full time. We’re talking about people doing the exact same job, but receiving less pay depending on their chromosomes. 

Second, and more importantly, it isn’t even true. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, men and women change jobs at roughly the same high rate. 
Individuals born from 1957 to 1964 held an average of 11.3 jobs from ages 18 to 46 (a job is defined as an uninterrupted period of work with a particular employer).
On average, men held 11.5 jobs, and women held 11.1 jobs from age 18 to age 46.

So, the idea that women are more likely to leave employers in the lurch is unfounded. Men may not be leaving for the same reasons as women, but that shouldn't make any difference to an employer.
  • As secondary wage earners, women don’t need the money as much as men do. 
Again, not true. In 40% of households with children, women are the sole or primary breadwinners. 63% of these families are run by single mothers. Contrary to popular mythology, women aren’t earning a little extra on the side, they are responsible for financially supporting their families. Not only are women doing the same jobs as men, but they are using their incomes for the same purposes. 

There really aren’t any rational reasons for paying some people less than others. The simple truth is that this kind of discrimination continues to happen because it can. Employers will get away with as much as we let them. How long that remains true may depend on who we elect to represent us and to fill our courts in the coming years.

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