Feminism | Posted by Cecile M on 11/10/2010

Fair Pay Isn’t Always Equal Pay…Right?

The Senate is considering a bill that would make it easier for women to sue their employers for wage discrimination on the basis of sex. While the bill has received support from women’s organizations and President Obama, who referred to it as “a common-sense bill,” the author of this New York Times article (interestingly enough, a woman) was not so sure that the bill was a good idea. Essentially, the author argued that though women currently earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn, this statistic ignores other factors determining salary. Historically speaking, men are likely to have had stronger educational experiences than their female counterparts if they were educated more than about 30 or 40 years ago. Similarly, they might have more experience and tenure simply because their field has been open to them longer than it has been open to women. Interestingly, “young, childless, single urban women earn up to 8% more than their male counterparts,” according to a recent survey. The gap, the author says, is shrinking to the point of disappearing.

Meanwhile, the bill would “hold employers liable for the ‘lingering effects of past discrimination’ – ‘pay disparities’ that have been ‘spread and perpetuated through commerce.’” Therefore, employers would not only have to ensure that it was not intentionally discriminating against women, but also to monitor potentially sexist suppositions behind the way the market drives wages, which may or may not be sexist. Employers, faced with millions of dollars of damages and bad publicity, would be likely to settle even if they were entirely innocent. The article concluded with the following two sentences:

“The Paycheck Fairness bill would set women against men, empower trial lawyers and activists, perpetuate falsehoods about the status of women in the workplace and create havoc in a precarious job market. It is 1970s-style gender-war feminism for a society that should be celebrating its success in substantially, if not yet completely, overcoming sex-based workplace discrimination.”

Now, I don’t buy that wage discrimination has disappeared. I think that by the time I’m in a position to hire other people, it may have been effectively eliminated because my generation has grown up in a climate where discrimination is seen as a great moral wrong (which it is). I am also aware that, at least in the U.S., most college campuses have more women than men, suggesting that the education factor may slide the other way. In 50 years, could we be looking at a market that discriminates against men?

Again, I doubt it, but debate on the subject of what, if any, wage discrimination is occurring is crucial. As a female, I would like to be paid on the basis of my credentials and my relative productivity, not on the basis of my sex. But the line is blurrier than it at first might seem. No one would argue that discrimination isn’t occurring when two individuals whose only difference is their sex are paid two different salaries. Of course, since no two individuals are identical, the situation is never this clear-cut.

The question I pose, then, is at what point do we do as the author of this article suggests, move on? At what point have we succeeded in “overcoming sex-based workplace discrimination,” and when do we stop legislating against it? What does it even mean to have succeeded in overcoming it?

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  • A.Y. Siu @ at 12:05 pm, November 10th, 2010

    I forget whether it was Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but one of those books about food argued that rather than passing legislation about sanitation and health codes for slaughterhouses, all one would have to do to fix inhumane conditions was have the slaughterhouse walls be made of glass and open to viewing by the public.

    No one would argue that discrimination isn’t occurring when two individuals whose only difference is their sex are paid two different salaries. Of course, since no two individuals are identical, the situation is never this clear-cut.

    I think a similar deal would work here.

    With legislation, there is always a workaround. The wealthy and powerful can find loopholes… or just decide to settle out of court because it’s cheaper than dealing with the real problem.

    I think the real solution to this problem is changing our culture to one of salary transparency. It’s considered right now impolite to ask someone what she or he makes a year. Why don’t we change that? If employers have to make known everybody’s salary to everyone, then you won’t end up with a situation in which people are paid unfairly, because the people who are will simply leave for another company and not silently in ignorance be on the short end of the pay injustice stick.

  • Quinc @ at 7:42 pm, November 11th, 2010

    You’ll find that there is a lot more unconscious discrimination that conscious. I’ve seen research that women who are too feminine are seen as technically incompetent, and women who aren’t enough are seen as socially problematic. Men however don’t have these problems if they’re sufficientely masculine, agressive, and have a firm enough handshake. Also the issue of the “mommy track” women are expected to take care of the kids, but if they take a year off to do so, they get the same treatment as if they’d spent that time on the streets.

    With this law companies successfully sued won’t just have to give raises to women, but potentially massive settlements. Hopefully (for their sake) there will be more initiatives to avoid workplace discrimination and pay inequality.

    Yes, you could have discrimination against men, there are equal numbers of working men and women, roughly, but certain industries seem to be almost all one gender or the other. If this gendering of specific professions continues both men and women could suffer for having the other gender’s job.

  • marta1 @ at 10:20 am, November 13th, 2010

    On the contrary to the New York Times article, I read in the Guardian that a survey (and it looked like quite a good, reliable one) showed that women would not recieve equal pay until about 2065, at which point I will have already retired. Not sure which to believe noe, but it’s interesting to get alternative perspectives.

  • Ryan @ at 3:01 pm, November 13th, 2010

    Women will have to pry those extra 12 cents from our cold dead hands.

    You will not take men’s money without a fight. NO WAY would I ever support a woman and her kid.

    You will not win on your own merits. You will have to make more special “women first” laws in order to take men out. In the end, it will be women who suffer most in this war, we all will before this is settled.

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