Two Should Play A Game

file000704919536In his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Obama promised a new effort to promote gender equality in the work place. “It’s time to do away with the workplace that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode. This year, let’s all come together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds.” The crowd erupted in cheers and applause.


Four months later, the senate shut down a Democrat-backed bill aimed to give fruition to the president’s promise.  The vast majority of Republicans voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA), a bill that promotes income fairness among employees in the workforce. Statistically, women are still earning about 30% less than men on average since 2009, and it has since been an issue that both the senate and the house of representatives cannot seem to agree upon. Many of the bill’s supporters believe that equal pay will end discrimination, promote gender equality, and improve the economy. However, the road to an an ideal resolution is still unclear. While the lawmakers must settle their differences, the workforce – men and women – must work together to further bridge the pay gap.


The provisions of the PFA could be traced all the way back in 1963. Under the Kennedy administration, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) was signed into law, paving the way for the long march toward equal opportunity in the workplace. Under this law, employers were permitted to base salary differences on seniority, merit, and quantity or quality of production, but not sex. The law also included a “Declaration of Purpose,” in which the Congress wrote that sex-based pay discrimination depresses wages and living standards for employees, prevents maximum utilization of the available labor resources, and constitutes an unfair method of competition that eventually burdens and obstructs commerce. More importantly, EPA protected women and men against workplace discrimination. Today, our lawmakers are still debating about the essence of this bill, whether or not gender discrimination still exist or if we are reading statistics differently. However, such debate should have long been settled because discrimination in the workplace has been recognized, and the government tried to fix it – half a century ago.


Our lawmakers’ attempts to patch the loopholes of the EPA generated a conflicting perspective – a conflict that makes our lawmakers unreliable when it comes to solving this problem. The Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. case redefined some provisions of the EPA. In 1998, six months before her retirement, Lilly Ledbetter found out that she has been receiving less raises, benefits, and compensation than her male colleagues, who started at the same time she worked with the company. She filed a lawsuit in the Alabama district court, which would favor her case. However, the appeals court would overturn that decision because it was “beyond the time limit” to claim discrimination, and her case was passed on to the Supreme Court in 2007. The Democrats were quick to respond with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in the same year, with a primary purpose to clarify that “discrimination occurs not just when the decision to discriminate is made, but also when someone becomes subject to that discriminatory action.” Republicans blocked the bill in 2008, and criticized the Democrats for failing to allow compromises. The bill was eventually passed in 2009, and Ledbetter finally won her case. This is just one of the cases that the Democrats and Republicans will argue against each other, contributing to the delay of finding an effective resolution.


This “gender battle” seemed to have transformed into a “political battle.” This shift of focus will greatly hinder legislative efforts towards gender equality. Republicans who voted against the FPA last month believe that the bill hinders employers from granting raises and permitting flexible hours in exchange for lower pay. Moreover, employers fear that the bill will result to costly lawsuits. Republicans also accused the Democrats of using this bill to garner supporters in the upcoming fall congressional elections. Siding the Republicans, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also believes that the economy is still recovering from a severe recession and that the bill would only wreak further damages.


The Democrats, meanwhile, still hold strongly to their position. To them, this is a “common sense” law that Republicans continue to deny. The Democrats recognize the slow improvement in pay equality among men and women in the workforce, but they still assert that women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Vicki Shabo, director of National Partnership for Women & Families, expressed her support for FPA. “Our workplaces and our policies are not very family friendly. We don’t have paid maternity leave or even paid sick leave like many other countries and there is a lack of flexibility.” She added, “Women pay the burden when looking after sick children or family members.” President Obama also expressed his frustration with the Republicans’ action. He said, “Republicans… continue to oppose serious efforts to create jobs, grow the economy, and level the playing field for working families.” Clearly, our lawmakers are divided in this issue. Beyond that, their motives and agenda are unclear.


Shall this issue be resolved under their watch?


Probably not, and definitely not anytime sooner. Our continued dependence on the actions of our lawmakers will do nothing but delay attempts for an effective resolution that will answer the real matter asserted – unequal pay, not partisan objectives. Democrats and Republicans will likely continue to banter each other. With other issues pressing the legislature and our government as a whole, our lawmakers are truly occupied with many tasks. To wait on their decision should not be the only option.


Having a different understanding of the gender pay gap will refocus our goal towards pay equality. Prof. Steven Horwitz of St. Lawrence University views this gap pay issue as no more than just a contemporary economic myth.  Prof. Horwitz identifies that discrimination in the labor market does not exist. Rather, the difference between how much men and women make is a result of their individual choices based on different factors. He points out that there are more men interested in jobs that pay more such as engineering, law, and medicine, where as there are more women interested in humanities, social sciences, and nursing – fields that pay relatively less. Women’s plans on having children also affect their job stability, Prof. Horwitz points out. Lastly, he stresses that gender expectations seem to play an integral role into the choices both women and men make as they start their careers. “What we need to do,” he adds, “is convince more women to go into areas such as the science and mathematics and engineering, and we need to convince men to take more responsibility for children and the house.” Prof. Horwitz’s analysis of the issue could give workers and future members of the workforce a better understanding of the gender gap pay. He implies that choices – not employers – are crucial to how much we make. Having this understanding will change our perspective on the issue as it refocuses our attention on what is really happening in the workplace.


Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist of the Department of Labor, also denies the strong denotation of “women discrimination in the workplace” and encourages an optimistic way of looking at the issue. She stresses that “women earning less” is just an average and a poor comparison. Like Prof. Horwitz, Furchtgot-Rott emphasizes the common choices of women working part-time jobs and choosing temporary, short-term employment. However, she does recognize the  progress of women’s position. With the increase of women in executive positions and with more women getting a degree, Furchgot-Rott believes that women are no longer discriminated upon. Such perspective could help us understand the bigger picture – discrimination in the workplace, not only against women, has been improved since President Kennedy’s EPA. What workers should consider is seeing workers as individuals, not merely as a man or a woman. The more focus is given on the gender of the workers, the more stress shall be given on stereotypical gender roles and gender expectations.


It has been fifty years since the government promised a profound sense of equality in the workplace. While loopholes and legislative revisions remain inevitable, it is truly unfortunate for our lawmakers to represent our different perspective. No matter which party they belong to or where they stand, there will always be an opposing side. The gender gap pay issue is neither about who is discriminated upon nor how much should one really makes. It is all about who does what. Are lawmakers doing the best they can? Are employers being realistic? Are men and women making the wrong choices? Closing the gender pay gap requires more than just a fair law – it also demands the understanding and support of the people. As for Obama’s promise, we must rethink our position before we can understand the situation.



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