Unequal Payday

It’s Equal Pay Day — except that it’s not. It’s a funny idea in the first place, naming a special day to recognize the systematic shortchanging of the wages of more than half the population in the same way we might celebrate a famous person, place or event. More importantly, there is not really some specific point in the calendar when women “catch up” to what men have earned in the year before. When you look at the big picture, you can’t pick a single day when women are at parity with men. It’s always some kind of unequal payday.

If women on average earn somewhere around 79 percent of what men make in a year, at that rate it would take between 15 and 16 months for a typical women working full time to equal what a comparable man makes in just 12. If she’s African-American or Latina, her months are more likely to stretch out well beyond 16; but women of all races might need to work more days than the average, or a bit less. Because it also depends on where she lives, her age and her occupation. On whether she’s a mother, whether she has a college degree, whether she works full time. There’s an endless debate, often more myth than fact, about exactly how many cents women lose on the dollar, and whether if you try really, really hard to narrow it down you can get it to single digits. (At the end of the day, there’s always a gap.)  And then what? To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes on this point, splitting the pennies into two piles — one stack called discrimination and the other called life choices — “just isn’t very satisfying.”

Equal Pay Day is intended to smooth over these complications with simple and accessible symbolism. The calendar shows how much longer and harder she works for the money, in this case a year’s worth of male earnings. Maybe it’s not exactly 102 days into the next calendar year, but that really isn’t the point.  The point is we still have a problem and Equal Pay Day is a startling reminder that we are not equal, not yet.

So what do we do?  I’ve got a list, actually, and over the next several weeks I plan to write about what we can do right now with tools we already have – like better reporting and accountability and embracing pay transparency. I want to dispel the fiction that companies know exactly what they are doing when it comes to compensation, and therefore could not possibly have underlying bias in their systems or practices. But first I want to challenge the typical framing of the question.

We need to get beyond only caring about — and only talking about — “equal pay for equal work.” Paying women less for “substantially equal” work has been illegal under the Equal Pay Act for more than fifty years. And it’s wrong, and it is still a problem. But denying women equal access to equal work has also been illegal for more than fifty years under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other state and federal laws. In other words, you can’t limit women’s access to higher paying jobs and then justify their wage gap as just an unfortunate accident of that difference in job duties. This is doubly true when ideas about what women “can” or “should” do skew who gets hired to do what.

Think that doesn’t happen? Tell it to the women shunted into the bakery instead of a higher paying area of the grocery store, the female laundry workers assigned to sort and fold clothes instead of loading the washers like the men for a higher hourly rate, the women placed at the cashier station instead of valet parking the cars and getting tip money.  And if women just happen to get fewer work hours on the construction site, less valuable clients and fewer sales leads, or fewer promotional opportunities then they get paid less too. If we limit ourselves to the problem of equal pay for equal work we may miss a lot of unequal paydays.

That also means everything we think we know about whether differences in jobs, or in work hours, or experience “explains” enough of the pay gap comes with a giant asterisk. Overt discrimination as well as other barriers to equality of opportunity challenge the assumption that these are simply different “life choices” we can drop into the analysis without question.  As I wrote several years back, “even the ‘explained’ differences between men and women might be more complicated. . . . If high school girls are discouraged from taking the math and science classes that lead to high-paying STEM jobs, shouldn’t we in some way count that as a lost equal earnings opportunity?”

Certainly it’s impossible to sum up the big, sprawling social inequality of how gender (and race, and disability, and sexual orientation) distort fair earnings by just picking a single point in the calendar and calling it a draw. And yet sometimes we benefit from a useful and imprecise shorthand for understanding a much more complex phenomenon. Happy Unequal Payday everyone; only 43 more years until we finally catch up.