Gender wage gap issues are multi-faceted, but real

The OC Register editorial “Solution in search of a problem” April 8, 2014 is way off the mark and not worthy of this board’s usual good work.

California women are responsible for the economic security of their families. In the U.S., mothers are primary or sole breadwinners in nearly 40 percent of families, and married mothers are the primary or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of families. That means women’s wages are key to their families’ ability to make ends meet and get ahead. Almost 2 million family households in California are headed by women.  Yet a woman with a full-time job is paid on average $42,000 per year while a man who holds a full-time job is paid $50,000 per year.  Thus, California women are paid 84 cents for every dollar paid to men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to 77 cents at the national level.

The wage gap persists regardless of industry, within diverse occupations, regardless of education levels, regardless of political ideology.  It is perpetuated because of poor comparisons like those propagated in the editorial that “men tend to work longer hours”—are you kidding me? And “women who take time off to have children…sacrifice experience, a factor that affects their level of compensation”—it doesn’t seem to affect men’s compensation when they take time off to have children, however, or take into account the innumerable forms of high-tech communication devices where even when we’re home, we’re working.

There is no proof that being a mother makes a woman less productive on the job. And, while it is true that women typically take more time away from work for child rearing than do men, that decision often makes economic sense when a wife’s wages are lower than her husband’s—equal pay would likely lead to more equitable sharing of child rearing and to women and men working in the labor market about the same amount over their lifetimes.

The idea that wage disparity comes from “people making different choices” holds no merit. “Choice” is, of course, an unverified assumption.  There is considerable evidence of barriers to free choice of professions, ranging from lack of unbiased information about job prospects from very early ages to actual harassment and discrimination in male dominated jobs.   According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, however, there are no hard facts on how many, or indeed, how many would “choose” otherwise in a world of complete information and nondiscriminatory employment.  For example, in a world where half of engineers were women and half of social workers were men, men and women might “choose” very differently than they do now. We do know that young women and men generally express the same range of desires regarding their future careers in terms of such values as making money and having some flexibility and autonomy at work, as well as time to spend with family members.

1950’s living is long gone.  In this economy, today’s “modern family” can’t afford to have one parent take years off to raise the kids while the other works a 9 to 5 job.  In 2014, both parents are juggling jobs—sometimes multiple jobs–kids, and schedules to make ends meet in a high cost of living state.

It’s true, America has made progress and the gap is closing—but the fact that a gap exists at all is inexcusable.  The Equal Pay Act signed into law in 1963, and other federal and state laws are in place to outlaw paying women lower wages for the same job.  Yet, workforce discrimination and pay disparity still exist, and those who engage in it should be held accountable.  That’s a real problem in need of a solution.

An abridged version was originally published as a Letter to the Editor in The Orange County Register on April 18, 2014.

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