Mind the Gap

Why women need the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Sen. Susan Collins

In a New York Times op-ed Wednesday, Christina Hoff Sommers at the American Enterprise Institute contends that the Paycheck Fairness Act is a waste. The act has passed the House and will likely come up for a vote in the Senate soon, and in mounting her timely attack, Sommers joins with a vocal minority that includes Michelle Malkin, as well as groups such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses, House Minority Leader John Boehner, and more surprisingly, the moderate Republican senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

Sommers claims that the proposed law “overlooks mountains of research showing that discrimination plays little role in pay disparities between men and women, and it threatens to impose onerous requirements on employers to correct gaps over which they have little control.” But Sommers is the one overlooking mountains of research that demonstrate just the opposite. She also displays little understanding of how the legislation would work once it becomes law.

The Paycheck Fairness Act will ensure that a law already on the books—the Equal Pay Act of 1963—is adequately enforced. It gives women the right to know what their male colleagues earn so that they’ll also know whether they’re experiencing discrimination. Sommers says the bill “isn’t as commonsensical as it might seem,” but this pretty much defines common sense. If I don’t know how much the man sitting in the cubicle or on the shop line next to me earns, I cannot know whether I’m earning a fair day’s pay.

Remember Lilly Ledbetter? After nearly two decades of employment at Goodyear, a colleague left her an anonymous note with her salary and the salaries of three of her male colleagues. She was stunned to find out that she was earning less for doing similar work. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court. She won, but the justices ruled that she couldn’t get her back pay because the discrimination began 20 years ago. Ledbetter didn’t sue earlier because she didn’t know about the pay disparity; to the court, that didn’t matter. Congress has since fixed this problem—with the support of Sens. Collins and Snowe. Yet to this day, employers can retaliate against an employee who merely wants to know what her colleagues earn (and yes, that includes firing).

Sommers claims that women don’t need the proposed law’s protections. She acknowledges, as she must, that among full-time, full-year workers, women earn just 77 cents for a man’s dollar. But then she says that the 23-cent shortfall does not take into account differences between men and women, such as experience, education, or job tenure. *

She’s wrong. Let’s start with education. Earlier this month, we learned that women earn more Ph.D.s than men. For some time now, women have earned more bachelor’s degrees and are more likely to attend community colleges. Sommers points to a new study that found that “young, childless, single urban women earn 8 percent more than their male counterparts,” and she notes that this is “mostly because more of them earn college degrees.” That’s true. But it doesn’t make Sommers’ point that women don’t need protection from pay discrimination. As I explain here, to compare a group of women who are on average better educated with a group of men who are on average less educated is to compare apples to oranges. Of coursethese women earn more as a group.

The American Association of University Women tackled the pay gap question by looking at workers of the same educational attainment—same kind of college, same grades—holding the same kinds of jobs, and having made the same choices about marriage and number of kids. They found that college-educated women earn 5 percent less the first year out of school than their male peers. Ten years later, even if they keep working on par with those men, the women earn 12 percent less.

This last statistic counters Sommers’ tired argument that women make choices that lower their pay. The AAUW study is part of a vast body of additional research. For example, Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn show that 40 percent of the total gender pay gap cannot be explained by the choices women make that could affect their on-the-job productivity, such as hours of work or experience.

Sommers also argues, based on the 2009 analysis of wage-gap studies commissioned by the Labor Department under Secretary Elaine Chao, that women “tend to value family-friendly workplace policies more than men, and will often accept lower salaries in exchange for more benefits.” What is stunning about this claim is that, in fact, when you look at the data, women actually get these kinds of perks less frequently. How can women be “trading” wages for benefits if they’re getting fewer benefits? That’s not a trade; it’s a raw deal.

Consider workplace flexibility. Researchers find that women—and, in particular, mothers—are actually less likely to have access to workplace flexibility than men. Nor does the flexibility they do get explain the motherhood pay gap. In a careful empirical study, two sociologists, Paula England at Stanford University and Michelle Budig at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, found that interruptions from work, working part-time, and decreased experience can explain no more than about one-third of the gap in pay between women with and without children. And “mother-friendly” job characteristics explained far less.

Sommers’ straw man is that the Paycheck Fairness Act will hold employers’ feet to the fire for “the lingering effects of past discrimination,” leading to an avalanche of lawsuits against well-intentioned and innocent employers. Sen. Collins, too, said she is concerned about imposing “excessive litigation on to the small-business community.” Sommers imagines the law taking a monkey wrench to the market—suddenly suspect would be the higher pay universities give business school professors compared with social-work professors. That’s an example that may make sense to readers. Surely universities shouldn’t be forced to artificially inflate the salaries at social-work school. But it strains credulity to imagine that the law would have this attenuated effect. If businesses are worried about more litigation, maybe that’s because women armed with knowledge about pay gaps would be more likely to bring suits that have merit to enforce the laws that already exist.

And in fact, supply and demand often fails—oddly, in ways that lower women’s wages. For example, there’s a significant nursing crisis in this country. We do not have enough of them, and not enough young people are entering the field. Yet, nurses are paid well and many people would like to join the field. So what’s the problem? Last year, nursing schools turned away 55,000 qualified applicants because they cannot recruit enough well-trained professors to teach them. As it turns out, nursing professors earn less on average, than nurses who nurse. Nursing schools need to pay their faculties more not because of the comparison with business schools, but because that’s what the market demands. It seems that Sommers’ argument is that markets function for business school professors, but not nursing school professors. Give me a break.

Sommers’ core dismissal of the Paycheck Fairness Act is that it’s a throwback to “1970s-style gender-war feminism.” But that’s just a thinly veiled effort to make a needed shoring up of our anti-discrimination protections sound radical. Women can see through it.

Correction, Sept. 24, 2010:The original sentence miscalculated the amount of the pay gap. (Return.)

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