Equal Pay Helps All

Posted June 10, 2009, at 4:50 p.m.

The fact that women in the same job make only 78 percent of what their male counterparts equal is often considered a problem for women to deal with. This is shortsighted. With increasing numbers of women becoming primary breadwinners and growing numbers of single-parent households headed by women, ensuring female workers are fairly paid should matter to everyone.

The most recent analysis of U.S. Census data found that women earned 78 cents per $1 earned by their male colleagues for doing similar work. Although there are disputes about whether this wage gap figure is accurate, few dispute that there is a gap.

The gap persists despite passage of the Equal Pay Act 40 years ago this month. The problem is that the act was passed without mechanisms to ensure its intent became reality. Four decades later, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has twice been passed by the U.S. House, seeks to change that.

Business advocates argue that women are often paid less because they do less dangerous work than men and take time away from the work force to raise their children. This misses the point. People should be paid the same for doing comparable work. No one is arguing for nurses to be paid the same as surgeons, an example used in congressional testimony by a Hudson Institute fellow and posted on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Web site.

The 2007 testimony by Diana Furchtgott-Roth, who served in the administrations of George Bush and George H.W. Bush, included the absurd example that Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act, was paid the same as Rep. George Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. This is because their wages are set by Congress, something the Paycheck Fairness Act moves toward with pay guidelines for specific jobs.

More important, the Paycheck Fairness Act offers help to both businesses and employees to move toward pay equity. Female employees, for example, could be taught negotiating skills.

Federal legislation is unlikely to change the tendency of men and women to cluster in different careers, often with wide salary differentials. There are few women engineers and computer programmers, for example, but many women are teachers and nurses.

Sharon Barker, director of the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Maine, points out there is a mistaken belief that discrimination must be intentional. It doesn’t. Unintentionally paying women less than men is still discrimination.

It is also bad for everyone. With families increasingly dependent on women’s earnings, a smaller paycheck may means less money to spend, whether it be on health care or clothing or food. It may mean more families and children are eligible for state and federal assistance. It also means that at retirement, women generally have fewer assets than men.

Averting these consequences is why Congress should ensure that the Equal Pay Act lives up to its name.

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