Girl, Please: Why “Equal Pay” Has Nothing To Do With Gender.

Today marks Equal Pay Day, which, of course, remains more of an aspiration than a celebration. First organized by the National Committee on Pay Equity in 1996, this annual event serves to underscore the continuing disparity between men and women’s wages.

Equal Pay Day is always celebrated on a Tuesday in April, to “represent how far into the year, and how far into the next work week, women must work to earn what men earned the previous week,” per the NPCE website.

This timing serves as a stark and highly symbolic reminder of the fact that women in the workplace still only make about .83 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts, according to a recent Pew Institute Survey (some estimates put this as low as .77 cents).

This means that because women work less on average, they must work longer hours for the same pay as men.

Equal Pay, Equal Work: A Brief History.

This income disparity seems something of an Eisenhower era anachronism, an unwelcome byproduct of a bygone era, particularly given the greater societal gains that have been achieved in gender parity over the four decades since Kennedy first signed the Equal Pay Law in 1963.

That’s right. Back when the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was topping the charts, when Bette and Joan were feuding at the Oscars and back before Title 9, The Civil Rights Act or the EEOC even existed, the Equal Pay Law was signed into action, landmark legislation that remains in effect to this day.

This means for 55 years or so, it’s been illegal to pay women less for performing the same (or similar) jobs solely based on their gender. This, of course, leads to the question of why, exactly, over half a century later, the issue of achieving equal pay remains as elusive as ever.

In fact, it’s surprising just how glacial that progress has actually been.

When the Equal Pay Law was first signed, women were paid 59 cents for every dollar men made; fast forward to today, and that number has only moved up around 15%, which is still far less than the 23-25% women still must make up before true wage parity between men and women is achieved.

Put in context, at the rate we’re going since pay equality for women first became codified within federal law 55 years ago, we’ll finally hit Equal Pay in the US by 2050, factoring in the 60% gain women have already made in the last half century.

BLS Data, Courtesy US Department of Labor

Additional protections have passed in the intervening years, furthering the wage rights of women in the workplace. In his first act of office, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, overturning an earlier Supreme Court precedent capping salary discrimination lawsuits with a statute of limitations of only 180 days since the initial wage violation, even if that discrimination continued.

This indemnified most employers against any possible practical action by employees, nor did it create any onus for employers to take tangible steps towards complying with the Equal Pay Act, further codifying an already entrenched (if illegal) process.

While the Ledbetter Act effectively allows women to fight back against discrimination in the workplace regardless of when it began, the burden of proof of such cases tends to be unusually high; this, coupled with the binding arbitration agreements most employers require, effectively renders these protections moot for most women.

Furthermore, Obama Administration legislation like the Ledbetter Act – and similar protections, even those that are largely symbolic – could easily be recalled by the current Commander in Chief without any Congressional oversight or approval.

This is not a great sign that there is going to be a great deal of progress over the short term, although despite his blatant misogyny, overt chauvinism and implicit admission of sexual assault, it may come as some surprise that Donald Trump actually has publicly advocated (albeit equivocally) income equality, saying of women, “if they do the same job, they should get the same pay.”

Of course, he offered no policy details on this other than the suggestion that it would be difficult if not impossible to practically enforce any policy in the first place, saying, “when you have to categorize men and women into a particular group and a particular pay scale, it gets very hard – because people do different jobs.”

Couple this with the fact that only last term, Senate Republicans unanimously voted down equal pay legislation that would have purportedly closed the wage gap by punishing workers who discuss their salaries, among other protections.

Given that the GOP has only increased their Congressional majority, making any progress over the short term on this long term societal issue seems unlikely at best.

Equal Pay Day: Filling in the Income Gap.

So as we mark the 2017 version of Equal Pay Day, it’s important to remember how futile a half century of efforts have proved to be when it comes to closing the gender based wage gap.

Equal pay for equal work has already been a tenet of federal law for decades, so no legislation (nor litigation) looks likely to fix the problem, or women would likely already have achieved wage parity.

The reason why is simple: because it’s not in the best interests of big business to affect this change. Employers have no incentive for conducting comprehensive payroll auditing, nor implementing the controls necessary for ongoing enforcement and continued compliance simply so that they can ultimately pay their female employees more (or their male employees less, for that matter).
Not so fast, says Glassdoor, who is admirably addressing this issue, in a couple of  ways. First, Glassdoor has released a step-by-step technical guide to help employers analyze their own pay data.

This uses the same methodology Glassdoor used in its report: Demystifying the Gender Pay Gap that they also use to analyze their own pay data annually.

Glassdoor also allows employers to pledge their commitment to pay equality through a badge on their benefits section of the Glassdoor profile. So far, the Equal Pay Pledge has more than 3,100 employers committed to an initiative described by Glassdoor as a chance for companies to “Demonstrate their commitment to equal pay” as part of a company’s employer brand – Glassdoor states that 3 in 5 job seekers would not accept a position at a company they knew had a pay gap, although they would have no real way of finding out that information themselves (even the government has this problem).

It might even be good for your business – Glassdoor similarly states that companies with a gender balanced workforce outperformed their less diverse counterparts by 15%, although it’s unclear if those high performing, blended gender workforces have achieved equality in compensation instead of simply composition – in which case these numbers align with other diverse workforce populations.

But there are plenty of problems with the underlying assumptions upon which this Equal Pay Pledge Is built.

Why Gender Isn’t The Real Problem With Equal Pay.

Courtesy: Payscale

You’re going to be reading a lot of statistics supporting the common-sense case for wage parity between genders on Equal Pay Day like the one above, showing how far women must come before “equal pay for equal work” becomes anything more than a cute, convenient tagline or political rallying cry.

The most common one you’ll see is the one about earning somewhere around 80 cents on the dollar, although that might be something of an overstatement, per vendor Payscale, who, like Trump, feels that correlating gender and income is apples and oranges.

By their estimate, that income equality number is closer to 98%, and almost 3 in 5 respondents denied having any sort of issues with equal pay at their companies whatsoever. The problem isn’t with the equal pay part of the equation, which is what most employers and headlines choose to focus on. It’s the “equal work” part where women have the biggest issue, and a problem that’s much more poignant and pervasive than simply compensation audits.

Mundane tactics for income egalitarianism, like instituting pay grades and salary bands, can largely solve any salary inequality issues before they become issues in the first place.

Such mainstream best practices reinforce pay equality, since they effectively standardize and equalize pay in a way that removes both bias and individual discretion, and most enterprise employers have implemented these concepts, along with considerations like internal equity and compression.

They’ve been doing it for almost as long as the Equal Pay Act has been the law of the land, and it’s largely made the issue of “Equal pay for equal work” passé, or at least, mostly solved for women in the workforce (despite the many studies to the contrary).

Girl, Please: The Real Reason For The Wage Gap.

This is because income inequality might be correlated with gender, but when it comes to causation, this proves a secondary concern at best, and one that’s largely irrelevant, just like viewing Equal Pay Day in the context of binary, gender specific constructs.

The research supports this, including today’s release from Payscale, who decided to actually analyze the data instead of make another “us too” PR play – yeah, per Glassdoor data, 90% of people out there support gender equality at work, so these content marketing campaign and public

“Equal Pay Pledges” are only preaching to the choir.

They’re also badly missing the mark, Payscale’s research shows.

“Payscale believes that pay gap is, instead, an opportunity gap since women tend to find themselves in lower paying jobs than men and are also left behind men when it comes to leadership roles or promotions.”

Indeed, the Equal Pay problems are much more closely correlated with issues of race and class then they are with gender – it’s just that women are much more likely to find themselves working low skilled, low paid positions as their primary means of income than their male counterparts, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone.

While it’s of dubious value, the commonly cited statistic that women make 80% of what men do seems outrageous to most of us at face value and an egregious societal injustice. Thing is, that’s only if you’re a white woman.

As slow as progress has been for all women in the workforce, at least there’s been some form of progress in the last 50 years, some small steps closer to achieving income equality.

Compare this with data from a 2016 Pew Survey which showed that white, non-Hispanic women, in fact, made 83 cents for every dollar men did. Black women, by contrast, made 66 cents by comparison, and Hispanic women made only 60 cents to the dollar of their male counterparts (white or otherwise).

Similarly, the survey found only 27% of women of all races felt discriminated against at work due to their gender, in terms of pay equality or otherwise; conversely, about 6 in 10 non whites reported to experiencing some sort of discrimination at work that made it harder to get ahead or advance in their career.

These numbers suggest that being a visible minority is a far larger barrier to achieving workplace equality than gender, which is found to account for less than 8% of the total wage gap, compared with the 52% difference race makes in influencing income and wage inequality. For purposes of comparison, only around 20% of the wage gap is influenced by such conventional occupational factors as skills, education or experience. In aggregate,

Compared to the average female, non-white Hispanic, white women are much closer to gender equality with men than with other women. Compared to black men, white women in fact made an average of 25% more, suggesting that today, on Equal Pay Day, we’re missing the entire point.

If you really want to fight for pay equity and the right of all women to work (and to do so at a living wage), and you don’t want to wait the 170 years economists estimate it will take to close the worldwide gender gap, let’s change the conversation this Equal Pay Day.

Let’s focus on Equal Opportunity, instead.

After all, it’s in all our job descriptions, right?


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Matt Charney

Matt Charney is the Executive Editor for RecruitingDaily.



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Matt Charney is the Executive Editor for RecruitingDaily.

  • Andy

    Did you refer to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as an executive order??

  • Beth

    It would be great if everyone took the time to actually look at these statistics, rather than jump into the same pool of gender equality that everyone else is swimming in. I like “opportunity gap” much better, encompassing race, gender, sexuality, etc. It’s not “PC” to say it’s not about gender, but it’s true. At least, it’s not JUST about gender. There are all sorts of extraneous factors. Thanks for writing this. I expected to disagree when reading the title but I’m pleasantly surprised!

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