Monday, September 27, 2010

Gender Bender

If the Obama administration wants to lurch to the center in advance of the midterm elections and in preparation for an Obama re-election campaign in 2012, it had better reconsider this harebrained scheme to enforce gender pay equity in the workplace.

Pleasantly named the Paycheck Fairness Act, the bill would require employers to offer equal pay for equal work. Here's how the conservative columnist George Will described it:
It would further enrich a Democratic constituency — trial lawyers — by saying that differences in pay between men and women cannot be based on differences of education, training, and experience unless there is a "business necessity" — an invitation to litigation.
The only public case for the act that I've seen was penned by White House congressional lobbyist Valerie Jarrett in The Washington Post. Essentially, Jarrett insists that it's not fair that women make, on average, 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Nowhere, though, does Jarrett try to look seriously for the causes of this disparity. She simply assumes that the wage difference is a result of gender discrimination.

Over the decades since women entered workforce en masse, there is no denying that discrimination played a role in keeping them down. Heck, just watch an episode of Mad Men or ask someone who was around 50 years ago when women earned 59 cents in relation to men.

But it is equally undeniable that we have made significant progress since that time. And what about the choices women make? If a woman takes five years off to raise her family, should she return making the same amount as a comparable man who has been toiling away at the company all that time? For Jarrett, the answer seems to be yes.

If a man were to take that same time off, then he is the one who should come back making less, but of course, that rarely happens because traditional gender roles mitigate against it.

If I had to guess, I'd say that's the goal of this bill: to compensate women for their roles in raising children or in wanting more family-friendly work hours. Should that be the role of government? Perhaps women who want to maximize their pay should consider the consequences of having a family?

Particularly galling is the extent to which Jarrett ignores the evidence that women make up a disproportionate share of the nation's undergraduates, earn the lion's share of master's degrees and now, for the first time, lead in Ph.Ds as well.

And there's this from Will:
In this year’s second quarter, women earned 82.8 percent of the median weekly wage of men. Last year single women working full time earned 95 percent of what men earned. Young, unmarried, and childless urban women earn 8 percent more than similarly situated males. Why? See above: College degrees.
This bill is sheer folly. And if it passes, Republicans can use the issue to get the votes of independents like me who are sympathetic to women's rights but think there is a limit to what government can and should do to promote them.


  1. I agree with you that it is probably folly, as the numbers are so close. But I sense under the surface that even if there was an equality gap, you would not be in favor of it. Am I right?

  2. I'm not sure, since this appears to be a solution without a problem.
    I generally am not in favor of legislation that is based on an assumption of discrimination that may not exist, where there may be a rational basis for the pay inequality.
    I do think that existing anti-discrimination laws should be enforced.

  3. It's the "rational basis" that's the rub. If I might bore you with a story, I hitched a ride from Boston to NYC in the late 70's with a newly minted attorney...not the white shoe kind. He told me that he had successfully forced the state of Massachusetts to equalize the car insurance rates for young men and women. I suggested that they should be different - afterall, we know who has more accidents. You know what his reply was? It is a statistical fact that blacks have more accidents than whites. Long pause...rational basis indeed.

    So, with women we have that curious paradox. They aren't exactly a minority, but historically they have been treated unequally. btw, Mad Men is wicked good.

  4. Peter, welcome back!
    That's a very interesting story. If blacks were LESS inclined to car accidents, then would it be OK to charge whites more? It could viewed as a form of reparations, eh?
    It is tricky indeed when the government or a company starts deciding who gets treated how.
    Mad Men is damn good, but I must admit I am only in the first season. Just started ordering successive shows on Netflix. But I will catch up soon ...

  5. Let me see if I understand you correctly. Since the bill being proposed in Congress would "require employers to offer equal pay for equal work" (your words), and you oppose the bill, then you do not think that women should receive equal pay for equal work?

    And the fact (apparently) that women make 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man makes it "a solution in search of a problem"? Perhaps if you looked into it you would find that such statistics are based on a head-to-head comparison by job, not an aggregate of all jobs.

    Everything else you say, about leave, education level, etc. has no bearing on the issue one way or the other. If a woman is a fund-raising director at Sarah Lawrence, she should be making the same salary as I am, wouldn't you agree? Even if she returned to work after a five-year absence, if she were hired for the same job, why should she make any less?

    The ostensible reason we have -- or need -- such laws is precisely because in practice, humans with their, um, infinite good intentions often find rationalizations for discriminatory behavior (such as unequal pay), such as ... you've been out of the workforce a while, therefore we offer you less. And yes, enforcement is also key; even the best laws have loopholes.

  6. If you think someone (male or female) should be able to leave his/her job for five years to be a home-maker and return to automatically make the same salary as someone else who has been toiling away at the company for those same five years (and therefore has five more years seniority), then we just have a fundamental disagreement on how to run an organization -- and the government's role in telling us how to do so.

  7. you MUST watch it sequentially!

    There is a fascinating tension between liberty and equality that the late Tony Judt (who defies categorization) has written about brilliantly. Perhaps we can chat about that some day, now that I have figured out this dang new fangled technology.

  8. I am definitely watching Mad Men sequence. At this rate (2-3 episodes a week), I will be caught up by June? It is a terrific show. Have you seen Boardwalk Empire? My cable guy is coming tomorrow to change our phone service and upgrade our cable to digital, so after 20 years I will finally have HBO.

  9. HBO, qu'est-ce que c'est? cheap SOB here. Heard Boardwalk Empire is great.

  10. That's not what I said. I didn't say that they "automatically" get to return to make the same salary as someone who'd been "toiling away." I said that if they return to a job that is equal in title, rank, or work description to someone else's, then their pay should be equal. If the company wants to offer the returning person a lesser job, that's a different matter.

    Having worked in the nonprofit and education sectors all my life, I admit that I don't have a great deal of knowledge of corporate ways and "seniority" and all that jazz. In my world, if I left my job to be a housedad, then I'd have to compete for a job coming back. If I got the same job as I had, then I'd expect the same compensation. But I suspect "seniority" is probably overblown. Even if I were gone for five years, it's not like I'd forget how to do the same kind of job I'm doing now.

    And that's another reason we need strong antidiscrimination laws, because there is a built-in assumption that a woman coming back into the workforce would somehow be less capable, and therefore legitimizes paying women less.

    In a society that is, to say the least, confused about women's roles -- "family values" strongly pushing women to raise families, while economic reality (eroding standard of living, remember?) and necessity makes it exceedingly difficult for a woman not to work, especially if she does have children -- that is grossly unfair. It would be great if we could depend on people to look past their frequently misbegotten assumptions (if not outright prejudices), but alas, that is not the world we live in.

  11. Peter, I'm a cheapskate, too. But try this one out for size. if you have AT&T for your landline, abandon it. Get Comcast phone service and with the savings you can get HBO -- and probably more, depending on what your cable package currently looks like.