The following was written for an undergraduate political science course at the University of Kansas called “Women, Gender and the Law.”
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with the controversial, but empowering Sheryl Sandberg and the similarly infamous Lilly Ledbetter, which exposed me to the persistent gender wage gap in America. In the United States, the lack of work-pay equity threatens the livelihoods of men and women alike, as it affirms damaging patriarchial structures in our society. Because of issues stemming from long-term sexism, women – particularly women of color – are not paid the same as men for the exact same work. Thus, this issue represents and intersection of gender, sexuality and the law but further involves elements of class and race.
Wage issues can be awkward to speak about publicly. In her speech at the University of Kansas last fall, Lilly Ledbetter pointed out that a large reason why women do not bring up issues concerning wages is because speaking about earnings is not socially accepted. This sparked my attention. As a senior in college, I questioned what I would experience post graduation, as statistics show that a women in the exact same job as a man will still make less. Currently, full-time working white women are paid only 78 percent of what white men earn and a pay gap exists in almost every occupation – from teaching to engineering (AAUW). In addition, this is an ageist issue as the pay gap grows as women grow older. As previously noted, this is also an issue concerning race and class, as the pay gap is much worse for women of color. Hispanic women, for example, make just 54 percent of white men’s earnings. These lost funds, which could be used to end the cycle of poverty in the United States, instead make it worse.
In recent years, policymakers have used the law to change the current system of inequality. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 amended the Civil Rights Act to protect the time limit for equal-pay lawsuits. In less progressive news, Senate Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act for the fourth time just last week (Daily Kos). This bill would put a higher standard on employers for wage discrimination, puts stronger penalties in place, and allows women to gain access to financial records more easily. Some Senate Republicans believe that the act encourages useless lawsuits, but I hold the belief that a lawsuit that protects a women’s livelihood cannot possibly be useless.
The reasons for a lack of equal pay for women are rooted in personal and institutional sexism. As women began entering the workplace after World War Two, the jobs open to them were not the same types of jobs available to men. Because of the perceived notion that women are weaker than men and that they must be the primary caretakers of children, careers often included work that could be done at home. Conversely, for the women in the workplace, society thinks that careers – like nursing or teaching young children – are more suited to women because of their maternal nature. Secretarial or cleaning work was thought to be more suited to women because it did not involve as much creativity or critical thinking skills, of which society thinks men solely possess. Thus comes into play the argument that is most common in American society – that women simply choose jobs that are low paying.
And this is exactly the point: the structures and institutions currently in place both encourage women to choose careers that are historically lower-paying and pay less for specific careers that society considers are more suited to women. This system devalues women and allows employers even today to further this sexist, racist, classist and ageist agenda.
The ramifications of a system that does not treat all genders fairly in one realm – equal wages – instills the same sexism in all other areas of life.
If women are mistreated in the workplace, chances are high that they are being treated poorly personally as well. As previously stated, when poor women are not being paid the same sum as men, the difference in funds adds to the cycle of poverty already in place and women can be unable to care for children or provide adequate healthcare for themselves.
In addition, if a woman is aware that she is paid less than her male counterpart in the workplace, she may not pursue higher education or training opportunities, which could help her climb the ranks. Psychologically, this system of inequality hurts women because it tells them that they are less valued, and it provides men the idea that they are somehow worth more than women. Though the wage gap may seem to some a small problem, this system perpetuates long-term oppression.
Questions still exist in the work-pay equity movement about the reasons why women are paid less than men. Is it because they choose lower-paying jobs? Or maybe it is due to the fact that women are caretakers and work more part-time jobs than men? Regardless of these questions, the facts remain: in the exact same, full-time job, a wage gap exists to which society must be held accountable. Gender, sexuality and the law coincide on this issue and though many policymakers are working to improve the status quo, advocates must continue to advocate for positive change.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research has more statistics on pay equity, available here.