IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The real losers of the equal pay debate

What was mostly lost along with the Paycheck Fairness Act: An honest conversation about the economic constraints women face.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a news conference to mark Equal Pay Day, on Capitol Hill, April 8, 2014.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a news conference to mark Equal Pay Day, on Capitol Hill, April 8, 2014.

Well before the Paycheck Fairness Act died in the Senate without a single Republican vote this morning, commentators were already counting the political chips. And because there had been so much chatter over whether the wage gap is real or how much women at the White House are paid, some were already calling it a win for the GOP. That may be true if you measure it in terms of "low-stakes cocktail party argument" (to borrow a relevant phrase from another context). But that's not all that's at stake, given that we're talking about actual people's lives.  

There are two preferred Republican comebacks to the Democrats' bludgeoning them with accusations of a "war on women." The first is to claim that women aren't actually all that worried about attacks on access to contraception or abortion rights -- or as Mike Huckabee put it, that Democrats "insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar" -- they're worried about their jobs and paychecks. (Leave aside for a minute that controlling your fertility is a baseline economic issue.) That attack was unavailable on a week Democrats made all about women's jobs and paychecks.

A second favored rebuttal is to point to individual Democratic politicians' sexual misconduct -- Anthony Weiner, Bob Filner -- and to take the conversation as far away from policy as possible. That was also tough to bring up on a day where equal pay debates were crowded out by footage of a Republican congressman kissing a subordinate. That woman no longer has a job, while the Congressman still has his. That's one solution to the gender wage gap. 

But the "gotcha" Republicans did find, the one reporters eagerly ran with -- that the wage gap among White House employees is 88 cents -- is just another way to change the subject to individual behavior. For one thing, the White House already has the transparency that's the goal of the two executive orders signed by the president, which is how they can be publicly shamed, and also likely part of the reason their gap is narrower than the national average. (Another reason is that the range is generally narrowed in government jobs, because the top salaries are dwarfed compared to parts of the private sector.) More broadly, the White House shouldn't be above reproach, and it could surely do better in promoting women to senior positions -- practically everyone could -- but it doesn't have to be perfect to advocate policies that could improve the lot of millions of women outside of its employ. After all, the wage gap persists even when a woman is the boss. A single exemplary employer isn't a long-term or national solution.  

The limit of such nitpicking jibes, too, with the other gotcha of Equal Pay Day -- that the White House was using a "fake" statistic when President Barack Obama refers to the fact that the "average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns." No, that number doesn't necessarily represent millions of women toiling away at exactly the same position as a man for three-quarters as much. Yes, that number reflects women's average economic power in this country, just as the even grimmer figures for women of color reflect the overlapping disadvantages of race and gender. Economists argue just how much of that figure can be chalked up to outright, women-are-valued-less discrimination, but no credible economist denies that that straightforward discrimination exists to account for some of it. So here's a question for all the naysayers: What's the precise amount of discrimination you're okay with? And what are you doing about it?

As for the rest of the gap, people who watch these things carefully, including White House economic adviser Betsey Stevenson, point out that many of the so-called "choices" that also contribute to the gap are severely constrained by subtler forms of sex discrimination and stereotyping, or that the "choices" are severely constrained. The rest of the White House's economic agenda for women includes other ways to get at the gap -- raising the minimum wage, supporting local family leave proposals, encouraging women to join higher-paying STEM fields. They are likely to get very few of these these passed under their current powers and the composition of Congress. But at least they're trying. After all, Democrats tried to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act three times, including when it had a majority in both chambers, and were blocked wholly by Republicans. 

The GOP's proposed alternative was a bill that would allow wage workers to get paid in time off instead of overtime -- in other words, a pay cut, or an interest-free loan to the employer, on the terms of the employer. Republican Senators' real reason for voting against the Paycheck Fairness Act was that it was opposed by the Chamber of Commerce and it would strengthen enforcement of the existing pay equity laws they insist are already working so well. (Not according to the numbers). Democrats were just, in the words of Senator Mitch McConnell, trying to "blow a few kisses to their powerful pals on the left.” Those powerful pals apparently include low-wage workers and women underrepresented in the ranks of leadership.  

Of course, the week's proceedings were mostly political. That doesn't mean they didn't represent actual problems in the world, or a real divide -- between policy solutions on one side, and abject denial on the other.