Last month, April 8th being National Equal Pay Day in the U.S, pay equity for women got another fifteen minutes of fame. We were reminded that when the Equal Pay Act was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, American women were earning an average of 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. Today they've reached between 77 and 81 cents on the male dollar -- a still unacceptable gap resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages, and thus smaller retirement accounts and lower social security payments just because of gender.
As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) pointed out, "If in 99.9 percent of all occupations men earn more than women, that is not an accident, that is discrimination."
There was big blather among talking heads noting that the comparative figures being used to quantify the gender-based discrepancy was an aggregate number. But what we didn't hear much about in the discussion was several critical issues that impact women's work lives and often prevent them from reaching the equity goal.
Let's start with the fact that women are not monolithic. We have different levels of education and thus different opportunities, different goals, aspirations and skills, different skin colors and ages. We live in different parts of the country, urban and rural. We are physicians, farmers and factory workers; bankers, bakers and businesswomen; models, machinists and marketing mavens. For some of us, our productive work is unpaid and unrecognized. Think of women who don't "work outside the home" but who provide unremunerated services ranging from food preparation and housekeeping to chauffeur, psychologist and hostess. All of this makes it dicey to talk about women and work in simplistic ways.
But there are other relevant variables that we missed a golden opportunity to address more fully when focusing again on the need for pay equity because the gender pay gap isn't just about "comparable work." It's about big stuff like access, equity, subtle discrimination, racism and more.
We know that African American women earn 72 cents for every dollar men earn, although that figure depends on whether they are being compared to white or black men. For Latinas it's even worse; they earn 60 cents for every dollar that men earn. But as Bryce Covert points out in an April article in The Nation, race too often gets removed from the conversation about discrimination. "It ends up in the 'explained category,'" she says, citing studies that explain why a certain percentage of the gap is due to racial disparities. "But a large percentage of the gap remains unexplained," she points out. "We know that race dramatically shapes wages. That's partly why it gets lumped into the explained category. Taking this measurable difference into account helps explain some of the wage gap. But does that mean we should remove it from the conversation about discrimination? Do we have a good explanation for why people of color of both genders make less than white people? "There's plenty of research indicating that our labor market still discriminates against people of color. But race is pushed aside in the discussion about whether women are up against real life wage discrimination."
Another issue is likely to be particularly relevant to two-career families in the economic bracket that draws the most attention when issues of pay equity arise. For professionals with careers in which both women and men are heavily invested psychologically, there needs to be more discussion of divisions of labor on the home front, and quality childcare. One reason women never catch up to men financially in the workplace resides in the fact that they still bear the brunt of responsibility for keeping everything ticking along in America's kitchens and nurseries. You know the story: Women come in and out of the job market because of children so they never make partner in their law firm, or never get tenure, or aren't viewed as managers and leaders.
Which leads to another topic - the "second generation gender gap." Studied by Deborah Kolb at Simmons College among others, the term refers to organizational practices that look neutral but can have different impacts on men and women. For example, gendered assumptions about male vs. female roles often lead to conclusions that men are better at strategic roles while such innovations as encouraging diversity or fostering team work are viewed as women's work. "In deciding what's a good fit when it comes time to choose people for strategic roles it is much more likely that men will be put up for these opportunity jobs," Kolb says. "Organizational structures and assumptions can go far in shaping formal systems such as hiring and promotion practices as well as compensation."
These issues are not esoteric. They are germane to pay equity in critical ways. Sure, they're complex and difficult to assess. But until we take them on, recognizing and reconciling them in meaningful ways, the wage gap is likely to continue creeping toward resolution, if it moves at all. What a shame we lost the chance to dig deeper into this matter before another year is gone.