My brother and I used to love to play the game of Life. We’d always go to the college route because it didn’t take much to see that going straight into business was going to get you the lowest pay on the board ($12,000, at the time). We’d grumble if we ended up teachers (the next lowest pay at $24,000) and always wished for that coveted doctor salary (the highest pay at $50,000). Ironically, we both became teachers in the real game of Life. But that aside, one thing in that game was always certain: if we both ended up with the same occupation, the pay was the same every payday, for him and for me.
The real game of Life isn’t like that. Today is Equal Pay Day—the date on which the average woman earns what the average man made in the preceding year. Except it’s taken the average woman an extra 98 days to earn it.
We’ve heard much about the gender wage gap; the fact that the average woman makes 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. It’s a number that has stubbornly resisted change for about a decade. And when you break it down further, women of color suffer from an even wider gap than white women when comparing their salaries with white men—64% for African American women and 53% for Latinas. Yes, the gap does close somewhat, if you adjust for education and occupation, but there’s always a gap.
Some like to say that the reason for the gap is not discrimination. They say that women are choosing to work in lower paid jobs. In some ways, that’s true. More women than men work part-time, and women do tend to cluster in some lower paying jobs. But instead of saying women have made that choice and that’s that, we should be asking why women make that choice.
Why would a woman choose to make less money? Part-time work and many lower-paying jobs are more flexible, which means that women can better balance work with their home responsibilities. But again, we should be asking why it seems to be that women more than men make this sacrifice. And it’s completely circular to say that they do because the men in their lives make more money. Imagine if a person could choose what she wanted to do, without having to consider how that choice affects her family’s needs. Many more women would likely choose to aim higher, to work in different professions, if they knew that they predominantly (or they alone) would not have to be the person who has to do most (or all) of the work-home juggling. (Kathleen Geier has a great post that shares part of an interview with White House economist Betsy Stevenson that discusses these same ideas.)
And, as one theorist has noted, framing women’s lack of high level career success as a matter of choice has some consequences. If we say “women aren’t as well-represented (or as well-compensated) as men in a particular field,” and “[i]t’s because women are making ‘choices’ that hinder their career development,” we are ignoring some very real structural inequalities that impede women’s ability compete on the same level and at the same pay as men.
President Obama today is signing two executive orders to address the gender wage gap, but those orders apply only to federal contractors. One of the orders is inspired by Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of the first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009. This executive order prohibits federal contracts from retaliating against employees who share information about their pay with each other. Pay secrecy is a contributing factor the wage gap. A recent survey found that almost half of all workers report discussing wage and salary information is either discouraged or prohibited or could lead to punishment. The second executive order requires the Department of Labor to establish regulations mandating federal contractors to report wage data to it, with the hope that requiring contractors to make public their salary information will make them more accountable for any salary differences that may be based on sex or race. The two executive orders mirror provisions in the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has languished in Congress.
The gender wage gap is real and it’s hurting too many women, and, consequently, their families, since women are the primary source of income in 40% of the nation’s families. The two executive orders are a step in the right direction, but unless and until Congress acts on more comprehensive legislation that applies more broadly to the workforce, women will be working another nearly 100 days into 2015 to earn what a man earned by the end of 2014.