What's missing in the wage gap debate

White House, Congress politicize issue, miss the point

The debate over wage equality for women gained no traction last week as heated rhetoric spewed and purely symbolic gestures flew from the White House and Congress.

Equal Pay Day, the point on the calendar in 2014 that the average woman would need to work to make as much as a man did in 2013, was 'celebrated' last week by President Barack Obama and White House officials.

Following the third failure of the Paycheck Fairness Act to pass the Senate, Obama marked the occasion by signing two executive orders that would implement similar provisions to the act, but only for federally contracted workers. The act and the executive orders aim to improve transparency of wage-related data and hold employers more accountable for discrepancies.

The day, the act's failure and the executive orders all coalesced into political wrangling worthy of a pay-per-view special event. The result was predictable - each side got plenty of political fodder for the upcoming election and the women, outside of federal workers, gained nothing.

The entire notion of Equal Pay Day and the most recent bickering about the wage gap were based on some lofty math. Obama and democrats persistently stated women, on average, make only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. This is not to say a gap does not exist - it does - but that number is problematic, for more reasons than might be immediately obvious.

The 77-cent figure comes from the Census Bureau's calculation of median wages for males and females - there is a 23-cent disparity. This number can become significantly smaller if, for example, you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics' number for weekly wage gap - a 19-cent difference. Pew Research, factoring part-time work and other factors, came up with a 16-cent disparity. All of this, however, ignores deeper issues that have largely been left out of the debate.

Also worth noting: though much of that figure is due to differing life choices between men and women, the Paycheck Fairness Act would have sought to address wage disparities between men and women working the same jobs.

These types of provisions, though, are necessary, as discriminatory practices in payment exist. Though not pervasive enough to make up the 23-cent disparity, discrimination in payment, constraints on women's decisions in the workplace and secrecy in how much each gender makes all work to worsen the problem.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would help ameliorate these inexcusable practices, but even if its provisions are eventually passed, that should not anesthetize us to the more structural problems underlying the wage gap.

The issue with the 77-cent figure is that it paints over the societal norms ascribed to men and women. Seventy-seven cents on the dollar - an easily digestible talking point, a political construction that fails to appreciate real differences between how men and women are treated in society and expectations placed on them.

The issue with the whole debate in Washington last week - which will surely spill into countless campaign ads and stump speeches - is that it was sparked and fueled by the desire for political gain, accusatory language and faux pas to woo a constituency. It failed to make any meaningful progress against prejudicial norms or what discrimination does exist - and again, it does.

Forget the discriminatory pay for the same job argument for just a moment and consider the following: It is not just that women are paid less for the same jobs, but also that women often are precluded from receiving top-level jobs.

Nationally, women hold only 16.9 percent of corporate board positions. Mary Barra became the first female executive of an American car company - in 2014. Women constitute two-thirds of low-wage workers and 14.6 percent of top-earning careers. Millions of women still significantly surpass men in unpaid labor that receives no remuneration.

These points, however, were scarcely touched upon in the debate and certainly not addressed even close to adequately.

What was gained? A vacuous talking point for Obama, campaign ad clips for democrats vilifying republicans and vice versa ahead of what will be a vicious midterm election campaign season. Gains for women - just about zero, unless you count the blatantly negative effect this debate has had by reducing substantial concerns to headlines and 140-character vitriol.

Discrimination in pay exists and must be addressed. The bigger and more challenging task requires more than legal shifts, though. It requires societal change.

email: editorial@ubspectrum.com