TCW - Jobs, Money & Opinion

Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act is the Pro-Family Thing To Do

Vice President Joe Biden (R), senior advisor and assistant to the president Valerie Jarrett (C) and equal pay activist Lilly Ledbetter attend a Middle Class Task Force event on work place pay equality in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on July 20, 2010.  UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom

As the Senate waffles on whether or not to take a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act before the November elections, we can expect to see (and have already seen) much rhetoric on the issue from both supporters and opponents. In the House, which voted on and passed the bill in 2009, the 256-163 vote was divided down party lines, with only 10 Republicans voting in favor.

It's perhaps unsurprising, but nonetheless counterintuitive: the Paycheck Fairness Act is, after all, as "pro-family" piece of legislation as we've seen in recent memory.

Why? Consider a report from the Joint Economic Committee, which revealed the following: not only did wives' earnings in 2008 comprise 36 percent of total family income (compared to 29 percent in 1983), but a working wife is required in order for families to increase their income. That is, between 1983 and 2008, families in which the wife worked full- or part-time saw their annual income grow 1.12 percent per year, while families in which the wife did not work saw incomes decrease at a rate of 0.22 percent per year. 

And that's just in traditional, husband-wife households. Consider also that in 2009, 25 percent of families with children (9.8 million) were female-headed households, compared to 20 percent in 1983. And over a third of working mothers with children under the age of 18 are their families' sole breadwinners. More than 12 million families with children rely primarily on the mother for financial support. In these families, where there is no male primary breadwinner's income to fall back on, ensuring that women are receiving their fair cut at work is even more essential. As the JEC concluded, "the future of the American economy depends on women's work, both inside and outside the home."

But predictably, people are afraid of The Paycheck Fairness Act. They fear that women will be able to file lawsuits willy-nilly, imposing a one-job, one-salary rule that corporations must enforce across their workforce. In fact, the bill (see page six) requires corporations to prove a legitimate "business reason" for any pay discrepancies which, contrary to the hand-wringing, would encompass things like education, experience and salary negotiation. They opine that it will put undue pressure on the already struggling small businesses of American. They worry that employees will be able to run their employers into the ground with punitive damages when a wage gap is attributed to "oversight" or "unintentional." In reality, punitive damages are only applicable when it is clear that the employer acted with "malice or reckless indifference" (see page 9).

...You get the point.

But even if we were to take a deep breath and realize that the Paycheck Fairness Act is not going to end Capitalism As We Know It, we have to take it back even further: not everyone agrees that a gender wage gap exists in the first place. They say it's a matter of choice; that women leave the workforce or cut back on their hours to have and care for children; that women opt for family-friendly benefits in exchange for lower pay. Granted, 
repeatedly quoting the "77 cents to every dollar" statistic (which compares the wages of full-time men to full-time women) over-simplifies the point; but it does not negate it. Even when factors such as education, tenure, experience, seniority, occupation, race, marital status and industry are accounted for, half the wage gap remains unexplained. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has shown that women who work 41 to 44 hours per week earn 84.6% of what men working similar hours earn; when that is increased to over 60 hours per week, women earn 78.3% of their male counterpart's salaries. It doesn't matter if you're a surgeon (where women earn 59.1% of men's wages), a CEO (80.1%) or a secretary (83.4%); it doesn't matter if you've been out of college for one year or 20. It doesn't matter if you intend to or ever do take time away from the workforce to have children; it's been shown that you will be preemptively penalized for the expectation that you will one day do so. No matter how you slice it, the wage gap persists and, ironically, it does not discriminate (though it does disproportionately impact non-Caucasian women).

In short: report after report, study after study, has been unable to explain away 100% of the gender wage gap. As a 2007 study by the American Association of University Women noted:

The pay gap between female and male college graduates cannot be fully accounted for by factors known to affect wages, such as experience (including work hours), training, education, and personal characteristics. Gender pay discrimination can be overt or it can be subtle. It is difficult to document because someone's gender is usually easily identified by name, voice, or appearance. The only way to discover discrimination is to eliminate the other possible explanations. In this analysis the portion of the pay gap that remains unexplained after all other factors are taken into account is 5 percent one year after graduation and 12 percent 10 years after graduation. These unexplained gaps are evidence of discrimination, which remains a serious problem for women in the work force.

Clearly, with all the variables, these issues must be examined with subtlety and nuance (which, truth be told, are not a boon for website page hits, and perhaps partially explains the dearth of it). There is no black-and-white solution or answer for why the gender wage gap does or does not exist. Discounting it out of hand ignores countless gender barriers that have been proven to exist, and leaves us powerless to create solutions to them. Think of these barriers not so much as the be-all, end-all of the glass ceiling, but instead as countless glass plateaus that women encounter throughout their careers.

For example, let's go back to Forbes' example. They fear that if a male employee attempts to negotiate a raise and a female employee does not, the employer will be unable to grant that male employee a raise without fear of legal action. And it's true, it's been shown that women are less likely to negotiate or ask for raises than men. But it's also been shown that women are more likely to be punished for attempting to negotiate than men, by both male and female managers, due to various social expectations for gender-appropriate behavior. This bill could help eliminate some of that discrimination; if both of those employees ask for the raise, the employer must weigh their requests equally.

Or consider the ways in which women are penalized for being what is termed "pre-pregnant" (ie., of childbearing age) whether or not they ever have or intend to have children. A recent Department of Labor report - a head-scratching read if there ever was one, which documents stat after stat underlining the existence of a gender wage gap, then expends circuitous rhetoric in attempted opposition to those very facts - notes that:

Gruber (1994) has investigated the incidence of mandates requiring employers to include maternity benefits among the medical conditions covered in the health insurance provided to their employees. The results from his statistical analysis indicate that the costs of health insurance coverage for maternity expenses are partly but not fully shifted to groups of workers who disproportionately benefit from their provision. Specifically, he has found that the wages of women of childbearing age (i.e., between 20 and 40 years old) have adjusted to offset partially the increased costs of health insurance coverage that have resulted from the mandates. He has also found that the mandates have not affected either the level of employment or the hours worked per week among such women.

That is, women's wages are penalized for simply being female and of childbearing age, whether or not they actually bear children. The wages of men of childbearing age, whether or not their wives are carried on their employer health insurance, are presumably unaffected. These types of factors (of which there are many, many more) challenge the argument de jour that the wage gap is a result of "choice." The Paycheck Fairness Act, which requires further research and investigation into the reasons for the gender wage gap, could help bring these discrepancies to light.

Look, I understand the fear (though it doesn't excuse the fear-mongering): It's uncomfortable and inconvenient to admit that these wage gaps exist because of sexism. It not only requires the observer to admit that we are not "post-sexism" or "post-feminist," but to admit that sexism isn't necessarily so cut-and-dried as the boss grabbing a female employee's ass or refusing to hire a woman because she's pregnant. (Which still happens.) It's not always instantly recognizable. It is subtle, insidious, hidden and sometimes, even on the part of the person committing the act, unconscious. It requires admitting your own privilege--that perhaps, male writers and critics, you are not best positioned to tell female workers what they do and do not experience in the workplace. It requires admitting that our free market system is not flawless and does not provide a clear path to the pursuit of happiness for everyone; and yes, requires proactive vigilance against such injustices. 

Many of the articles I read in research for this post boiled it down to, "sure, discrimination in the workplace is bad, but I don't see any proof it exists, so why fix it"? Sorry, but a stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach isn't going to help anyone, male or female. The gender wage gap has persisted too heavily and too long for that. It's broken. If we truly want to support American families -- in all the shapes, forms, arrangements and varieties that modern families take -- we need to fix it. 

Still unconvinced? I encourage you to, first, read the bill before making a judgment call. I promise it's not as scary as it sounds.

Find me on Twitter at @CassandraGaddo.

Corrections: This blog was amended on November 14, 2010 to remove the following sentence: "But the bill is only designed to apply to large scale businesses and corporations." In fact, the Paycheck Fairness Act follows the standards set by the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which applies to both large and small businesses, though some specific jobs -- such as certain jobs in hotels or casinos -- are exempt.



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Male Matters said:

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Obviously, nothing has worked to close the gender wage gap -- not the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, not affirmative action, not diversity... Nor will the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act work. The wage gap will stubbornly persist because pay-equity advocates stubbornly ignore this:

Despite feminists' 40-year-old demand for women's equal pay, millions of wives still choose to have no pay at all. In fact, according to Dr. Scott Haltzman, author of "The Secrets of Happily Married Women," stay-at-home wives, including the childless, constitute a growing niche. "In the past few years,” he says in a CNN August 2008 report at, “many women who are well educated and trained for career tracks have decided instead to stay at home.” (“Census Bureau data show that 5.6 million mothers stayed home with their children in 2005, about 1.2 million more than did so a decade earlier....” at Perhaps more women are staying at home because feminists and the media have told them relentlessly for years that women are paid less than men in the same jobs, and so why bother working if they're going to be penalized and humiliated for being a woman.)

As full-time mothers or homemakers, stay-at-home wives earn zero. How can they afford to do this while in many cases living in luxury? Because they're supported by their husband.

If millions of wives can accept no wages and live as well as their husbands, millions of other wives can accept low wages, refuse to work overtime, refuse promotions, take more unpaid days off — all of which lowers women's average pay. They can do this because they are supported by husbands who must earn more than if they'd remained single — which is how MEN help create the wage gap. (If the roles were reversed so that men raised the children and women raised the income, men would average lower pay than women.)

By the way, the next Equal Occupational Fatality Day is in 2020. The year 2020 is how far into the future women will have to work to experience the same number of work-related deaths that men experienced in 2009 alone.

Cassandra Gaddo said:


Thanks for reading and the comment. I find your argument unclear--are you advocating that men or stay-at-home wives are responsible for the gender wage gap?

You're right, having a full-time, stay-at-home spouse is a luxury. Unfortunately, that's not a reality or possibility for most American families, and that's something that these trend pieces touting the "return of the stay at home wife" ignore. In most families today, two working spouses are a requirement, not a choice. The workplace needs to acknowledge and make room for this.

You also note that women "can" accept lower wages because they can be supported by their husbands. As you'll note in my post above, the fact that some women take time off from or leave the workforce does not adequately account for the persistent gender wage gap. You're setting up a straw-man argument here. An antiquated work-life model does not excuse purposely docking a woman's pay for the simple act of being a woman. And it ignores the many families in which this is not reality: divorce, death, lay-offs, pay cuts and more erode at this faulty model. And what of single women, whether with or without children, who are supporting themselves? They should accept the reality that their pay will be lower because men "must earn more than if they'd remained single?" A woman must have an equal playing field in the workplace in order to support herself and her family. (For more on this, I recommend Leslie Bennetts' "The Feminine Mistake."

In addition, many families today are actually switching this arrangement around, with the father staying home full-time and the wife becoming the main breadwinner. Wives who stay at home full-time have nothing to do, statistically or socially, with creating the gender wage gap. The PERCEPTION of them on the part of the people who control wages, however, has much to do with it, and this perception--and the discrimination it manifests into--is what gender wage advocates are fighting against.

My argument above is that closing the gender wage gap is pro-family. I take this to mean all families, not only the ones in which the husband earns a comfortable living wage and the wife is able to accept less or no pay, which seems to be the only model you acknowledge.

Rae said:

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There is nothing ‘fair’ about this proposed bill. It was created to close the so called salary gap. Well, I have been in the payroll industry for over 25 years and I can tell you that differences in people pay have nothing to do with their sex.

Paycheck Fairness Act (S 3772) would protect employees who share salary information with co-workers and require employers to show that wage differences are job-related, not gender-based. Employers beware! This bill will create more reasons for employees to file frivolous lawsuits. The only people that will benefit from this bill are the lawyers that take on the discrimination lawsuits.

It will do NOTHING to increase women’s salary. This bill would not discriminate. The end result will be MEN will be offered lower starting rates for fear of upsetting the women work force.

Just as each individual has different fingerprints, each person is wired differently. How can you measure and prove someone’s negotiating skills? How do you measure and prove a person’s drive, determination, perseverance, and other qualities that put them ahead of the competition? Everyone knows that managers with different levels of responsibility and experience are paid differently. How can you even compare apples with apples? You can’t. That makes this bill unfair.

The Paycheck Fairness Act requires the government to collect MORE data from employers on the sex, race, and national origin of employees, adding to the red tape, paperwork, and hiring costs. It would only allow employers to defend differences in pay between men and women on the grounds of education, training, and experience if these factors are justified on the grounds of “business necessity”. Meaning that male managers with college degrees couldn’t be paid more than females clerks with college degrees if the employer can’t prove that the manager position wasn’t consistent with ‘business necessity’. In addition, the penalty would include back pay.

Even if you are not an employer, this bill affects you. Workers will automatically be included in the class action suit unless they opt out.

In a nutshell, it does not simply ensure “paycheck fairness” between men and women. It would make it much more difficult for employers to defend against wage discrimination claims, allow for unlimited damages, and make class action status far easier to obtain.

Funny how the name of the bill always sounds good but when you dig deeper, it's a nightmare.

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