There’s been a lot of yelling about equal pay in the news lately. It’s a discussion I’d rather not wade deeply into, because boiling national labor data down to a single data point is the place where logic goes to die. Everyone knows there’s a long history of pay discrimination in the workplace, and it takes many forms, certainly including the hideous act of paying women less than men doing the same job because of their gender. Of course that happens, and of course that should be illegal.
Bickering about these discussions breaks my heart, however, because the whole argument feels to me like one more example of a sideshow designed by the elite to set Americans workers against each other. While we are busy arguing with each other, (“Women make 77 cents for every dollar men make!” “Wait, how can that be true? Men suffered almost all the job losses during the recession!”), those who simply enjoy pushing labor costs down are laughing all the way to the bank. And plenty of other workplace crises aren’t getting the attention they deserve. In my opinion, rampant workplace ageism is an even bigger problem than the gender pay gap. Corporate America keeps inventing ways to rid itself of 50 year olds so it can hire 25 year olds at half price. But where are the protests against that?
By framing this argument as women against men, owners are keeping our attention from the real problem: workplace rights. And they are also preventing us from seeing that we are all in this together.
To that end, there is a smart column by Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times this week that is unfortunately titled “Pay Gap is Because of Gender, Not Jobs.” Despite the headline, the story is not just another “the gender pay gap is real!/not it’s not!/yes it is!” exercise in abusing labor data to whatever end the author wishes. Citing a paper published in this month’s American Economic Review, Miller points out that men make more than women in professions that reward overwork. Plenty of salaried positions (that is, jobs that don’t pay overtime for night and weekend work) now expect workers to be on call 24/7/365. The more 24/7/365 you can be, the greater your reward. These kinds of jobs also punish parents who have to pick up the kids from soccer practice at 6 p.m. Because women often bear a disproportionate burden for outside-the-workplace responsibilities, they don’t fare as well in these kinds of jobs. In fact, writes author of the paper Claudia Golden, and I’m setting this quote off for stress:
“The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours.”
Please read that again. Overwork is the biggest component of the gender pay gap, Golden says.
One response to this state of affairs might be for families to make sure men take on a more balanced role in child care, so men don’t continue to enjoy an “advantage” in the opportunity for overwork. And that’s fine, but if you owned a large company, wouldn’t you be glad people were yelling and screaming about that?
How about leveling the playing field in a more fundamental way? How about doing what Germany has done — and France and the U.K. have edged towards — restricting “out of hours” work, and forbidding all non-essential work emails and phone calls on nights and weekends? How about dealing with the insane state of American workers and their always-on lives?
Workplace fairness is for everyone. If you are somehow against it — and by the way, what man or woman is against paying women more? Really — you are only hurting yourself, unless you are one of the elite who makes money off the sweat of other people’s labor.
Salary secrecy is destructive
For example: Workplaces are full of unfair pay gaps. One of Americans’ most destructive social mores is the notion that salaries should be a secret. The ancient idea that it’s impolite to talk about how much you make is the best tool owners have for keeping labor prices low, and of course, it’s a big enabler of gender pay gaps. The recently GOP-blocked Paycheck Fairness Act would have made it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers who talk publicly about their salaries, creating a so-called right to protected water-cooler chat.
That such a right isn’t already acknowledged law in the United States should offend every man and women who ever earned a penny at a job. Salary secrecy supports only one side of this argument, and it isn’t your side.
Gender pay is easy to politicize. Every time I see that 77-cents-on-the-dollar figure bandied about, I flinch. It’s a bad number. You can’t simplify gender pay gap across regions and industries like that, any more than you can simplify the housing market. All labor data, like all housing data, is local. There are too many variables to boil down into a single figure, and I think it’s hurts the cause. For most workers in the 20s and 30s, 77 cents doesn’t pass the smell test. That group knows that more women than men are earning college degrees now. Find me a 28-year-old man who thinks he’s making nearly one-third more than the woman sitting next to him at his job.
The gender pay gap is most dramatic in higher-wage professions, and as men and women climb the ladder of success. The gap is enormous in executive offices, among highly-compensated doctors and lawyers, etc. But it’s hard to get upset that the new head of General Motors, Mary Barra, seems to be earning less than half of her male predecessor. Obviously, data points like these screw with your 77 cents number.
A more thorough examination of labor data by the American Association of University Women puts the gap at 7 percent. That should be plenty to make your blood boil. More important, it should signal to everyone — man and woman — there is a sickness in our labor markets. Clearly, women are punished for taking the meager maternity that U.S. law affords them, as they so often lose their place in the corporate ladder. And in general, workers are punished for starting families and having children. They are punished for seeking balance in life. They have so little leverage that they cannot say no to employers, even when their health is at risk, and they don’t even feel free to talk about how much money they make with co-workers.
If you don’t think something is wrong, you really aren’t paying attention. And you are almost certainly underpaid. Equal pay is important to everyone. Workplace rights are important to everyone. Don’t let them — either side — use the issue to make us fight with each other.