Better Life Lab

Four Fixes to End the Gender Pay Gap That Might Actually Work.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

The Trump administration recently ended a modest attempt to close the gender wage gap when it rescinded a not-yet-effective policy from the Obama administration that simply required businesses to report employees’ pay by gender and race. Now many are wondering how they will be able to accomplish anything on pay equality in the next three years (even Ivanka threw the idea under the bus) if even allowing basic transparency to move forward was too heavy a lift for the Trump administration.

The oft-cited statistic that women make about 80 cents to every dollar earned by men has remained basically accurate for a decade now. But there’s no reason to think that federal policy was going to be the engine for closing that gap in the first place, though there are a number of likely effective actions the federal government could take if it had the political will to do so. One effort is the Paycheck Fairness Act, which stops retaliation against employees who disclose their pay to co-workers and makes employers prove that pay discrepancies exist for nondiscriminatory reasons. This bill would be a big step, but unfortunately it has been introduced in Congress every year since 1997 and has never made any headway. Historically, however, federal policy has never been all that effective.

Even when pay equity was among President Obama’s top agenda items after taking office, this produced the ultimately limited-use Lilly Ledbetter Act, which extended the statute of limitations for suing a company discovered to be paying unequal wages for equal work. But research shows that outright pay discrimination accounts for only a minor portion of the gender pay gap. Right-wing policymakers have used this fact to argue that the pay gap isn’t real. But, as the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has written, “Just because the gender wage gap is multi-faceted does not make it a lie.”

The multiple causes of the pay gap mean there are countless reforms that could individually make incremental progress on ending the disparity. Luckily, most of the most promising reforms don’t require an ounce of effort from the Trump administration. Support for fairer wages is overwhelmingly high—84 percent among men and 91 percent among women—and there’s a vibrant movement of activists who have mobilized since the election, looking for solutions to this and other gender equality problems. Trump’s presence in the White House may actually help galvanize people to act on these issues, since they know not to expect any friendly assistance from the executive branch. Here are four areas where pay gap warriors can focus their energy and expect to see more victories in the coming months:

1. Fight for Work/Family Policies at the State Level

One of the groups hit hardest by the pay gap is working mothers, in part because of both actual and perceived gaps they take from work and from advancing their careers. States have long been the best incubators of progressive work-family policies in the U.S., passing policies like mandatory paid parental leave, which enables women to enter the most competitive professions, stay in the workforce while having children, and avoid long breaks in their careers that lead to pay cuts over time. Washington state passed the best family leave law in the country this summer, joining California, D.C., New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island in offering some kind of family leave beyond the federal government’s paltry Family and Medical Leave Act, which only guarantees unpaid job projection for 12 weeks to certain employees. California has also passed an equivalent of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

It’s not just the absence of Donald Trump that makes states a better place for executing these policies. The lobbying environment at the state level is a different beast than at the federal level, and the usual free-market zealots and major corporate PACs have less influence, especially in some of the most populated states where some of the largest employers reside (California, New York, Washington). Republican governors compete with other states not only to attract businesses, but to attract workers who will be taxpayers, and have been more amenable to work inequality policies than Republicans on the Hill or in the White House (even Bobby Jindal once got on board with fair pay in Louisiana).

2. Use Local Regulations to Test Innovative Ideas

Like state-level policy, local policy can have an outsize impact on work and pay throughout the country. Even more than state policy, however, local policies are important testing grounds for figuring out what kinds of policies will actually help to close the gap. For example, this summer, San Francisco made it illegal for businesses to ask prospective employees for their salary history, in the hopes that this will stop the cycle of women workers taking lower salaries with them throughout their careers. If this corresponds with closing the gap in San Francisco, other cities may adopt it, making it easier to either agitate for the same legislation at the federal level or to gain support from organizations like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to end this practice.

3. Support Low-Wage Workers’ Organizing in the Care Sector

At least 30 percent of the pay gap is attributed to occupational segregation, or the tendency of women to be disproportionately involved in low-paying industries while men are disproportionately involved in higher-paying ones. While many well-intentioned proposals for ending the pay gap focus on getting women into higher-paying occupations like STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—a better approach would focus on raising the wages of the occupations women already tend to hold, especially care labor. After all, with labor shortages in critical care-oriented jobs, we need more qualified people in these professions.

Unions have been key to raising wages in the care professions, like nursing, social work, and more recently, home health work. Among union workers, the pay gap is just 9 cents, less than half that of the national pay gap. Collective bargaining necessitates pay transparency and often includes demands for pay standardization, both of which reduce opportunities for discrimination. Even without formal unions, like in the domestic work industry, which has been notoriously difficult to unionize, low-wage workers organizing themselves into bodies like the National Domestic Workers Alliance have accomplished a great deal at the state level, including new requirements that nannies and housekeepers receive overtime pay. By focusing on an industry as a whole, low-wage worker organizing has the potential to close the gap in ways that far exceed the individualist, federal approach of something like the Lilly Ledbetter Act.

4. Celebrate Employers Who Do the Right Thing

Since assessing its internal employee pay discrepancies in 2015, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has invested $6 million to increase salaries and close the gender gap he found within the company. Companies like Salesforce are what equal pay advocates call “high-road companies,” so named for going beyond what federal, state, and local laws require of them to make their workplaces fairer and more accommodating places to work.

Every day, a new company is doing something to retain employees, recruit top talent, and—let’s be real—get some good PR. Most of the public thinks family and gender progress should come from workplaces themselves, and not from the government. And a combination of pressure from their own employees and the reward of public praise when they improve their policies could continue to move the needle. Companies that have stepped up to the challenge, like Google, Zillow and the New York Times, have gotten positive press for making bold changes to their company policies. 

Research on the roots of the pay gap suggest that no single reform will close the gap entirely. This is all the more reason to believe that the causes of pay inequality cut deep within our collective culture and that it’s going to take changes far beyond the waving of the presidential pen to get us over that 80 cent hurdle.