Editor’s note: This is the first of many columns by members of the Maine Regional Network, which is part of the national Scholars Strategy Network. Members share the policy implications of their research and aim to bring greater understanding to social and political debates.
In the United States, women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Maine women make considerably less: 68 cents. While some of these differences can be explained by working in different fields, women earn less even with the same education, experience and length of time employed.
Delving deeper into a range of pay levels, 2010 census data reveal significant disparities: Women physicians make 63 cents on a man’s dollar; female CEOs, 74 cents; female lawyers, 78 cents; female university professors, 80 cents; and female bank tellers, 96 cents. In fact, the only job in which a woman makes more than a man is as a shoe shiner on Wall Street: $1.02 to a man’s dollar.
Despite these inequities, on June 5 the U.S. Senate blocked a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, allowing such discriminatory practices to continue. All Republican senators voted against the bill.
Having thought I knew what fairness means, I headed to the dictionary and found the following definition: “the state, condition, or quality of being fair, or free from bias or injustice; evenhandedness.” So, I ask, how is an act that affirms women’s pay equity not supportable? What are the implications and consequences — both long and short range — of this action in the Senate?
At present more than half of all workers are women. They are employed because they want to be and have to be. Employment is both personally and professionally fulfilling while also economically necessary — as is mostly now the case.
But women’s wages do not just affect them; their families also are deeply affected. If women are paid less than men, their husbands and their children lose too. In families earning two wages — more often the norm than not — these inequities are of serious concern. For single mothers who are paying 100 percent of child care and other expenses for their children, lower pay really hurts.
American workers are on their own more than employees in other wealthy nations, as the U.S. has very limited family leaves and no requirement for paid sick days. These policies disproportionately affect women.
A woman who begins employment at a wage less than a man’s has been shown over the course of her work life to lose more than half a million dollars in earnings. It is thus critical that women receive fair pay as early as possible, before these disadvantages accumulate as their work lives proceed.
Women also live longer — at least eight years longer — meaning that savings (if they are fortunate enough to have any) need to last longer. And Social Security payments, the mainstay of the retired segment of the population, are determined by salary, so the less you make, the leaner your Social Security payments will be.
Some opponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act say that women don’t get higher wages because they don’t negotiate as well as their male counterparts and are more likely to work part-time. The wage gap, they say, is based more on women’s choices than on discrimination by employers — a situation for which business should be neither held liable for nor punished.
It is well established, however, that there is wage discrimination between women and men and that current law doesn’t do enough to deal with it. For one, women may not even know that they are being discriminated against, in part because employers can discourage or even prohibit sharing salary information. Without the evidence or even knowledge of discrimination, women can’t ensure their pay is fair.
The Paycheck Fairness Act would help for a number of reasons: It would increase damages to plaintiffs in pay-discrimination legal actions, strengthen requirements for employers to demonstrate that pay disparities are not gender-based, ensure women an appropriate “window of opportunity” in which to bring a gender discrimination claim, and lessen sanctions against workers who inquire about the salaries of others in their workplace. In essence, employers would be held accountable for violations of sex discrimination laws.
Women and men should have assurance from elected officials, employers and the U.S. government that the work they do not only is equally valued but equally compensated. Not having that assurance leaves us all in considerable jeopardy.
Luisa S. Deprez is professor of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. She is co-director of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.