Still $0.23 Short: The Debate Surrounding the Workplace Wage Gap

After contacting a male developer to see whether he would be interested in joining her team, Yunha Kim, CEO of the tech startup Locket, received this email in reply:

Hey Yunha, I’m pretty happy with my current job, but if you’re single I’d like to date you. Perhaps there are some unconventional ways to lure me away from my company (besides stock options) if you know what I mean. 😉

Kim chose to laugh off this message, but she did post this email without the sender’s name online in order to highlight the pros and cons of being a female CEO. She captioned the screenshot “And the sad news is, this is one of the more professional emails.” The behavior demonstrated in this email, though, is only one example of the discrimination that working women face; they also earn less than men who are doing the same job and have similar skills, a discrepancy that President Obama is trying to combat. The Equal Pay Act, which President Kennedy signed into law in 1963 when a woman earned only $0.59 to a man’s $1.00, aimed to address the wage gap at the time. The Act states:

No employer…shall discriminate…between employees on the basis   of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishments for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions…

Fifty years later, this financial disparity still exists. Although women make up half the workforce and 66% of women are the main or joint breadwinners of their families, overall they earn only $0.77 to men’s $1.00  The pay gap shrinks when comparing women and men with identical education and experience in the same job, but there is still an unexplained 7-9% pay gap which suggests that persistent pay discrimination still occurs in the workplace. Although the gap may seem small, it can accumulate into hundreds of thousands dollars of lost wages over the course of a woman’s career. Additionally, it not only costs thousands of dollars in lost benefits that are tied to compensation but also means that a woman has significantly fewer dollars to pay for child care, clothes, educations, gas, or groceries, among other necessities. This pay gap is even greater for African-American and Latina women: African-American women earn about $0.64 and Latina women earn about $0.56 per Caucasian man’s dollar, which is the standard for comparison.  

Women’s Median Earnings Graph: U.S Census Bureau (2011): “Women’s Earning as a Percentage of Men’s Earnings by Race and Hispanic Origin.” Historical Income Tables.

President Obama addressed this anomaly in his 2014 State of the Union, stating, “a woman deserves equal pay for equal work…It’s time to do away with the workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.” Three months later, on Tuesday, April 8, he signed an Executive Order that prevented workplace discrimination and empowered workers to take control of salary negotiations.The White House also published a Presidential Memorandum which directed the Secretary of Labor to require federal contractors to submit data on employee compensation by race and gender to help employees guarantee fair pay.

The next day, Congress debated the Paycheck Fairness Act in order to ensure that the standards Obama stated in his executive order will be applied to all employees covered by the Fair Standards Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which addressed the same concerns as the Presidential Executive Order and Memorandum, would have made it illegal for employers to retaliate against any workers who asks about or discloses their wages or the wages of a fellow employee in a complaint or investigation. Those employers would also be liable to civil action and be responsible for communicating pay information to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

However, the Paycheck Fairness Act died in Congress. Although it received Democratic support, the Act did not garner Republican voters, who believe that the bill is redundant and  unnecessary- sex-based discrimination is already illegal- and also irrelevant because women often make different employment choices than men. For example, a woman may pick a less dangerous job than a man or one with more flexible hours, so that she can cut back if she wants to spend more time at home with her family. Thus, the wage gap is not a mark of discrimination, but a representation of the conscious choices each sex makes.

Conservative voices also argue that women face a lack of empowerment in the workplace, preventing them for asking for a raise or negotiating; a study published in a 2003 Harvard Business Review article  revealed the starting salaries of male MBAs from Carnegie Mellon were 7.6%, or almost $4,000, higher on average than those of female MBAs from the same program because only 7% of the women negotiated their employer’s initial salary offer while 57% of the men, or eight times as many men as women, asked for more. The Fair Paycheck Act, Republicans say, will not change the unique mentalities of each gender; rather, the bill is a Democratic attempt to appeal to women voters both by supporting their equal pay crusade and by vilifying the Republicans as unsympathetic to that half of the population. If successful, this political maneuver could help the Democrats regain control of the Senate after this year’s midterm elections.

President Obama himself acknowledged  Equal Pay Day on April 8-the point on the 2014 calendar to which the average female worker must have worked to match the average man’s 2013 earnings; he, like most Democrats, continues to support for equal pay for equal work and the relevant Act. Meanwhile, the acknowledgment of unprofessional emails towards female workers, such as the one Locket CEO Yunha Kim received assure that unequal treatment- economic or otherwise- in the workplace remains both a public and a political issue. No matter the final decision , though, the Paycheck Fairness Act will set a precedent for working women not only now but also in the future of this country.

Labor Graphs from: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey. ““Civilian Labor Force Participation Rates By Age and Sex, Annual Averages: 1948-2012.”Labor Graphs from: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey. ““Civilian Labor Force Participation Rates By Age and Sex, Annual Averages: 1948-2012.”

Labor Graphs from: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey. ““Civilian Labor Force Participation Rates By Age and Sex, Annual Averages: 1948-2012.”

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