The Neverending Gender Pay Gap (August 13)

Update 291:  The Neverending Gender Pay Gap as a Phenomenon and a Political Issue in ‘18

Today, women in the U.S. are earning, on average, just 82 cents for every dollar men earn for the same work. This is a two cent improvement over a decade ago.  At this rate, we will achieve pay equity in 190 years. It’s a situation that calls out for affirmative action.

Below we look at the nature and extent of the problem and the possibility of a policy solution.  Though during the primary season, the issue has been muted, its salience could rise dramatically during the general election debate in the fall.




Size and Contours of the Gap

Although the pay gap has improved over the years, the problem continues to persist. It is particularly bad for women of color. It is increasingly evident that this is a problem that will not rectify itself, especially in light of the slow rate of progress over the last ten years. Left to its own devices, the gender pay gap will exist for at least another century.

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The Long Road to Equal Pay

The gender pay gap has been a divisive issue for several Congresses. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was the last legislation to pass through Congress that confronted the gender pay gap. The Act overturned a Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc., which severely restricted the time period for filing complaints of employment discrimination concerning compensation.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, first introduced in 1997 and re-introduced multiple times over the last 20 years, would amend the Equal Pay Act of 1963. It would hold employers accountable for retaliating against workers who share salary history, put the burden on employers to justify why someone is paid less, and allow workers to sue for wage discrimination. Democrats almost passed the Paycheck Fairness Act in 2010, but were thwarted by Republican Filibuster. Then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell defended voting against the bill by arguing that the legislation would not help women and would “line the pockets of trial lawyers.”

An Embarrassing Exceptionalism

Gender earning disparities relate both to the reality and perceptions of the work of caregiving, which is the unpaid work to care for children and other family members most often performed by women.  Around 85 percent of workers in the United States do not have access to paid family or medical leave, costing American families $20 billion a year. Up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave is offered to the majority of workers under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but there is no federal guarantee for paid leave. Five states controlled by Democrats and the District of Columbia have enacted their own paid family leave laws, but there is agreement on both sides of the aisle that something needs to be done on a federal level.

GOP Proposal: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

On Aug. 1, Sen. Marco Rubio introduced S.3345: a bill to provide paid parental leave benefits to parents following the birth or adoption of a child. The bill would allow new parents to defer the collection of their social security benefits in return for receiving paid leave benefits.  Sen. Sherrod Brown, during a recent Senate hearing on the issue, summed-up the GOP solution: “It’s robbing from your retirement to be able to care for your loved ones now.”

Not only does the GOP’s proposal create a Hobson’s choice between retirement and paid leave, it also would fail to cover the majority of people who need to take family leave, because it focuses solely on paid maternal leave.  Currently, 75 percent of workers who take leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) take it because of a personal health issue or to take care of family member or loved one.

The Democratic Solution: FAMILY First

Last year, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act as an alternative to the social security model proposed by the GOP. The bill would establish the Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave within the Social Security Administration (SSA) and would be funded through a small payroll tax — “the cost of a cup of coffee a week.”

The bill would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of paid leave that would guarantee 66 percent of an individual’s wages for three months and cover all family leave situations, not just new mothers. The bill is endorsed by small and big business groups alike because it reduces the burden on individual employers and would improve employee retention, thereby increasing profitability and worker productivity. Importantly, it does not create a false dilemma between siphoning money from your future retirement and caring for your loved ones (or yourself) today.

Support for paid family leave is high in the general population. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, 82 percent of Americans support paid maternity leave, 85 percent support paid leave for workers suffering from a personal health crisis, and 67 percent support paid leave for those caring for a loved one.

Economic Win for Everyone

Closing the gender pay gap and facilitating paid leave for women makes economic sense.  Women are increasingly relied upon as the main breadwinner in the household, or as a major contributor in a couple’s joint earnings. According to a recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), the US economy would add nearly $513 billion if women received equal pay with men — 2.8 percent of 2016 U.S. GDP. In addition, over 25 percent of new mothers leave work entirely for child or family care, so encouraging their continued participation through paid leave would undoubtedly boost corporate productivity and profits.

Equity and Representation

Lack of representation is a huge factor slowing progress for both pay gap and paid leave initiatives.  The problem is particularly bad for the GOP, but exists for both parties:

  • In the Senate, there are 23 women Senators — 17 Democrats and six Republicans. Women comprise 35 percent of the Democratic caucus, whereas they comprise just 12 percent of the Republican caucus.
  • In the House, there are 84 women Representatives, only 19 percent of the 435 members.  Of those women Representatives, 61 are Democrats and 23 are Republicans. Women House Reps. comprise 32 percent of the Democratic caucus, whereas for Republicans, they comprise a meager 10 percent.

Women are increasingly moving away from the Republican party, presumably because of these vast discrepancies. According to the New York Times, “Men of all races say they intend to vote for Republican House candidates 50-42, while women of all races say they intend to vote for Democratic candidates 58-33.”

Women are running for office as Democrats, and winning, at a much higher rate than as Republicans. In 2018, Democrats have already nominated 143 women in US House races, compared to just 42 on the Republican side.  If the majority changes next Congress, prospects for progress on this issue will change as well.

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