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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