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The Wage Gap: Myths vs. Realities

By Heidi Hartmann

We owe a debt of gratitude to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for pointing out the differing perceptions people have about the gender wage gap. In April, she invited me on her show to set the facts straight on the wage gap and I hope that I helped her to do that

By now, most Americans are likely familiar with the 77 percent figure, meaning that, at the median, women’s wages equal only 77 percent of men’s wages both for full-time, year-round work (in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available). This figure, provided annually by the U.S. Census Bureau, has come under criticism from conservative economists and others for a variety of reasons for the past several decades—so much so, that this simple and accurate figure is now viewed by many media outlets as suspect. One New York City newspaper even refused to allow an op-ed writer to include a number such as this provided by IWPR based upon government data.

On an April 30 broadcast of  the Sunday morning television show, Meet the Press, Ms. Maddow pointed out that another guest on the show, conservative-leaning CNN commentator Alex Castellanos, seemed to deny that men’s and women’s wages are unequal. After first countering that wages were equal, Mr. Castellanos said they were unequal but that was due to good reasons such as women working in fields like science or math, or women taking time off to have children, and so on. Mr. Castellanos was echoing justifications provided by conservative economists over the years to ignore the size of the wage gap by imagining that it is really much smaller than the data show, or that it may reflect women’s preferences—therefore, no government action to end discrimination is necessary.

While often those on opposite sides of an issue agree on facts but disagree on solutions, Ms. Maddow’s point is that, in terms of the wage gap, there exists a major difference in belief about the facts. In such circumstances, it is impossible to come to a compromise and agree upon a solution. Just as conservatives have spent decades challenging the role of government in regulating pollution, banks, or big business, they have spent decades challenging the popular wage gap number, and for a similar reason—to avoid policy changes. Let’s review what conservative economists have been saying.

Some economists challenge the 77 percent figure by pointing out it does not compare women’s and men’s earnings in the same jobs: in other words, the figure implicitly compares truck drivers, who are mostly male, with secretaries, who are mostly female, for example. Yes, the figure does compare women and men across the whole economy, but do we believe women should receive lower pay because they are any less talented, competent, or hard working than men? Given their equal competency, shouldn’t both women and men be able to find jobs in the economy that pay them what they’re worth?

When citing the wage gap, it may be more accurate to say, as President Obama often does, that women earn only 77 percent of what men earn for an equal day’s work (rather than for equal work).

A second set of reasons economists give for challenging the 77 percent figure is that the women and men being compared are not identical. More women than men have likely taken at least a year off from work in the past to take care of children, even if they are working full-time, year-round now. Also, more working women than working men are single parents. More married working fathers than married working mothers have stay-at-home spouses, allowing them to focus on full-time paid work.

Critics who cite these issues suggest it would be more accurate to compare single workers without children in restricted age ranges, where time spent working and work life careers are presumably more similar. But does it make sense to consider only subsets of workers? Shouldn’t women and men expect equal earnings when they provide equal effort and skill on the job whatever their age, marital, or parental status?

Yet another set of economists’ favorite reasons revolves around women’s choices. Perhaps women chose more family-friendly jobs that pay less, for example, because they provide more flexibility in exchange for the lower wages. Interestingly, data about the nature of jobs held by women and men cannot confirm this hypothesis. According to a recent survey IWPR conducted, single mothers have the least flexible jobs and college-educated white men the most flexible jobs.

Ms. Maddow was correct to point out that Mr. Castellanos is denying a reality that many women experience every day, lower pay than they deserve for the work they do. Many economists have been denying this reality for a long time. Let’s hope women’s voices and women’s votes in this election season make it clear that women’s lower wages must be addressed by stronger public policies.

Dr. Heidi Hartmann is the President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Women Workers in a Post-Walmart World

By Katherine Kimpel

Last week, the Supreme Court issued a decision that makes it harder for women in the workplace to protect their rights to be free from discrimination.  In reaching their decision in Dukes v. Walmart, the Justices—the five men who wrote the majority opinion, notably overruling the objections of all three women on the court— assumed that discrimination in the workplace just doesn’t really happen that much anymore. But Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the other men on the court didn’t cite any evidence, didn’t refer to any studies, or even bother to tell any anecdote to back up that claim. They didn’t bother to contend with the fact that individuals and government agencies continually litigate, prove, and then settle or win employment discrimination cases—cases that show that discrimination is, alas, alive and well.

For example, just last year a jury in New York federal court delivered a unanimous verdict against Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, finding that the corporation had discriminated against female employees in pay and promotions, and had discriminated against pregnant employees. Although the over $250 million dollars resulting from that verdict was significant, even more important were the 23 pages of changes to policies and procedures that the company later agreed to in order to settle the case.

You see, the brave women who stood up to Novartis to bring that lawsuit helped more than themselves.  They helped the other women at Novartis, by getting the company to change. They helped other women working in the pharmaceutical industry, by sending a message to employers that discrimination will not be tolerated and that litigation can result in just and heavy penalties. And they helped the government, by holding a global corporation accountable to our federal civil rights laws.

Congress knew, when drafting the civil rights laws, that we could never expect the government to shoulder enforcement by itself. They created a system where individual Americans could stand up and act as private attorneys general—essentially privatizing, in part, the enforcement of equal opportunity. However, had last week’s Supreme Court decision in Dukes v. Walmart been the law of the land in 2010 when Novartis was decided, the brave plaintiffs in the case may not have been successful, and the changes at Novartis may never have happened.

For women workers in a post-Walmart world, it is undeniable that the scales are weighted more heavily in favor of corporations, scaling back the progress for which our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers fought so valiantly. That sad fact does not relieve us of responsibility; instead, it simply means that we will all have to fight harder and with more determination than before.

On a day-to-day basis, this fight takes shape in advocating for yourselves in negotiating starting salaries, demanding rightful raises, and pushing aggressively for promotions. This fight takes shape in developing trusted coworkers who will help you benchmark your compensation and better understand the ladders to success. This fight takes shape in keeping detailed records of all of this and of your employers responses, good or bad, so that if the day comes when you or they need to get outside help, you’re ready. This fight takes shape in refusing to be silent when you or a coworker is underpaid, passed over for promotion, subjected to harassment, or disproportionately disciplined.

All of those things are necessary and good, but they are not enough. Women workers— indeed, all workers—in a post-Walmart world need to be proactive about this affront to our fundamental right to equal opportunity. Educate family and friends, write letters to your local paper, and contact your elected representatives to let them know you’re paying attention, you’re concerned, and you expect the Supreme Court’s over-reaching on behalf of corporations to be corrected.

Justice Scalia and the four other men of the majority got it wrong when they assumed that our world is a better place than it is, when they assumed that discrimination doesn’t happen anymore. They got it wrong when they decided that protecting corporations was more important than protecting individual Americans, be they men or women of any race. But the underlying faith in people wasn’t entirely misplaced. Every day, I work with men and women whose bravery to stand up for what is right inspires me. The moment now calls for the rest of us to also stand up to a Supreme Court that has gone too far.

Katherine M. Kimpel is a Partner of Sanford Wittels & Heisler, LLP, a national law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, and California.  Ms. Kimpel received her law degree from Yale Law School in 2006. She served as class counsel in the Velez v. Novartis gender discrimination case and authored the amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Dukes v. Walmart. Before joining Sanford Wittels & Heisler in 2007, Ms. Kimpel served as Special Counsel to Senator Russell Feingold on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she handled criminal justice and other civil rights issues for the Senator.

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