In the News 2014
The Nation, April 17, 2012
Congrats, ladies! By today you've earned the same as men did in 2011. That gap means that the typical woman working full-time, year round, makes about seventy-seven cents for every dollar a typical man does, and those missing twenty-three cents can really add up. In a year a woman loses $10,784 to a man—enough to buy about 2,700 gallons of gas. It can add up to a loss of $431,000 in pay for the typical woman over a forty-year career. No small chunk of pocket change.
This issue hasn't gone unnoticed. The first thing President Obama did after settling into the West Wing was to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, which expanded the statute of limitations on lawsuits over equal pay. Yet Ledbetter did little to actually change the gap: it stood at seventy-seven cents when the bill was passed at 2009, where it stands today.
But this high holiday of gender inequality is not the day to get dragged down in pessimism! After all, it can't be totally out of reach to change this thing that's barely budged in fifty years, amiright? In the spirit of moving forward and focusing on real solutions, here are some quick steps we can all take to make the gap disappear:
1. End salary secrecy. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, about half of all workers are either prohibited or strongly discouraged from talking about how much they make with their colleagues. And it's pretty hard to sue an employer for pay discrimination without first figuring out what everyone else rakes in. So, easy task: just force all employers, public and private, to let anyone talk freely about how much they make. Americans should quickly get over their queasiness about discussing money, and employers shouldn't care if their lower paid employees start salivating over six-figure salaries.
2. Raise the minimum wage. While we're making companies do things they have no interest in doing, we should also raise the minimum wage. According to the National Women's Law Center, about two-thirds of all workers making the minimum wage are women, and they're also about two-thirds of those in tipped occupations that often pay a base rate far below that. Making the federal floor of $7.25 an hour nets a woman just $14,500 working full-time for a year, which adds up to more than $3,000 less than the poverty line for a family of three. Raising that wage could mean a raise for 28 million workers. Congress has only raised that wage three times in the past thirty years—so what could go wrong?
3. Fix the broken career pipeline. One more thing that companies need to change: they need to move women into higher-paying positions and stop dumping them in lower ones off the bat. Research from Catalyst has shown that even after taking into account geography, industry and men and women's levels of experience, women are more likely than men to graduate business school and end up in a lower-level job. Their wages suffer from a similar problem: on average those women are paid $4,600 less in their first job than men. That difference had nothing to do with parenting, experience or aspiration. It just happens. And from there the gap keeps widening as women struggle to catch up with men over their careers. Those same men were twice as likely to end up in the C-suite than the women, so it's little wonder that their wage growth outpaced women's.
4. Pass family leave policies. Nearly three-quarters of children have both parents or their only parent in the workforce. How do those parents do it? No, really, how do they? Because our family leave policies compare pretty poorly to other developed countries. This isn't just an inconvenience, however. It has real financial impacts on working women. As a recent Rutgers study bluntly puts it, "Paid family leave increases wages for women with children." In fact, a woman who gets thirty or more days paid family leave is over 50 percent more likely than those who get nothing at all to see her wages increases the year after her child's birth. Easy solution there: just get Congress to pass some solid family leave bills. Next!
5. Increase childcare support. Research from the UC Berkeley Labor Center on California's childcare support system showed that a lack of access or ability to afford childcare can be one of the most significant barriers to getting a job and staying in it. In fact, workers' careers—mostly women's—are often disrupted by a failure to get childcare, but a continuous work history is correlated with higher pay and better benefits. One study estimated that if the government fully funded childcare programs, mother's overall employment would jump 10 percent. Get to it, John Boehner.
6. Encourage unionization. Cries of impinging on job creators' freedom aside, increased unionization rates are correlated with a much smaller wage gap. The gap stands at 79.9 percent among employees who aren't represented by a union, but it's a much better 87.8 percent for those who are. This may tie back in part to wage secrecy: IWPR reports that the percentage of workers who are discouraged or prohibited from talking about their wages was doubled for non-union workers as compared to union workers. Increased unionization rates: that should go over well in the halls of Congress, right?
7. End occupational segregation. Remember the mancession? Men saw a huge decline in their employment because they are overwhelmingly employed in construction and manufacturing, and women have been seeing job declines during the recovery because they're much more likely to be employed in the public sector. This is classic occupational segregation: women have yet to really break into the ranks of blue collar manufacturing jobs and are still clumped in service sector jobs. Our progress in getting more women into male-heavy jobs has slowed in recent years, and this has a big impact on the wage gap. Those manufacturing jobs? They tend to pay pretty well. Service jobs, not so much. At the low end of skill level, male-dominated fields—those that are 25 percent or less female—pay $553 a week, while female-dominated ones make $408. That's a difference of nearly $150 a week. Things are even worse at the high-skill level: men's fields pay $1,424 a week, but women's pay a whopping $471 less at $953. But no sweat: getting women to brave discrimination and socialization to take these jobs, and getting these employers to reach out to women, and getting more men into low-pay service jobs, and getting women the training and education they need for male-heavy jobs should all be a pretty easy to accomplish.
So ladies, turn that wage inequality frown upside down! We can't be that far from closing the gap if this is all it takes.
*These steps may require cooperation from a stalemated Congress and a reluctant private sector.