This past month, Republicans in the Senate blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act for the fourth time since 2011. This bill would have strengthened the federally-backed attempts to close the gender pay gap. The pay gap, a chasm that hasn’t narrowed in more than a decade, remains a constant reminder that the work women in the United States do isn’t valued as much as that of men. On average, it’s valued at about 23 cents less.
Yes, we’ve arrived at that oft-quoted 77 percent margin of error, a controversial statistic that provides a glimpse into the problem, but in no way tells the whole story. Women of color, for instance, struggle against an even wider pay gap, often making only 50 to 70 cents for every white man’s dollar. The whole story is a complex mess of racism, sexism, internalized misogyny, and excuses put forth by the opposition to explain away rampant discrimination. If you’d like to know what those excuses are, look up any published online article about the gender pay gap and scroll down to the comment section—you’ll find plenty there. Because this is the problem: people seem more concerned with trying to quantify women’s issues than actually solving them.
The Paycheck Fairness Act was primarily designed to make discrimination based on gender just a little bit harder to get away with by requiring employers to explain pay disparities, ban employers from punishing their staff for sharing salary information amongst themselves, and establish more severe penalties for active discrimination. Seems like one of those common-sense laws, right? But those who opposed the bill this month see it differently. They argued that it would actually hurt women. Why? Because employers, fearful of lawsuits, would stop hiring women. Yes, that’s right. Employers would stop hiring over 50 percent of the American population.
I know I’d like to see the numbers that back up that logical and well-thought-out claim, but in the meantime, there are numbers that make it clear that the gender pay gap not only exists, but will continue to, unless action is taken to diminish the problem. This is not a vestigial remnant of the 50s, an outdated trend that will slowly and quietly disappear in the coming years, but an enduring force of misogyny that cannot be solved just by having more female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Not that the Paycheck Fairness Act would bridge the gender pay gap. Far from it, but baby steps are still steps. The pay gap is a complicated issue that requires multiple approaches from different avenues, one of which has to be support from the federal government. Much of the pay gap can be attributed to subconscious decisions that arise from our misogyny-soaked culture and the assumptions that come along with that, which in turn affects how employers pay women. For example, studies show that when a male employee becomes a father, they often receive a bonus, but when female employees become mothers, they are often penalized with a pay deduction. This all hearkens back to the traditional ideas about genders inhabiting separate spheres of life. Psychologically, this is so deeply ingrained that employers believe that new mothers will be distracted by their children and will naturally place caring for them above their job. New fathers, meanwhile, are seen as freshly mature and responsible, ready to take on more at work.
But children and motherhood cannot even define the full scope of the problem, as even childless women experience inequality. According to AAUW’s Graduating to a Pay Gap, after controlling for various factors such as occupation and college major, women were paid only 82 percent of their male peers' salary just one year after graduating from college. The wage gap grows with age, folks. It’s only downhill from there.
If that sounds pessimistic, that’s because it is. The gender pay gap exists in our world only because we allow it to. Because there’s another reason the Paycheck Fairness Act died in the hallowed halls of our government, an excuse even more ridiculous than the complaints previously mentioned. Republicans refused to even entertain the bill not only because of the content, but because they claimed it was a ploy by the Democratic party. That Democrats were staging a “show vote” during an election year, using the bill to highlight certain issues for the sake of PR. And I say, so what? Who cares why the Democrats want equal pay for equal work? At this point, I’ll take it. Sometimes principles have to be sacrificed for practicality. Unfortunately, practicality is not a word that sits well with the our legislative branch, which has once again allowed party politics, election votes, and ego to justify crushing a common-sense bill that women in America need.
But in an internet age of conflicting studies and multiple accounts of information, can we take all these statistics at face value? Can we look at graphs with the varying degrees of insult based on a woman’s race or age with any confidence? Some people say the 77 percent is misleading and doesn’t tell the whole story. They’re right. They also say that, because of this, the pay gap doesn’t exist. They’re wrong. But none of this matters. In calculating the varying percentages, the 60 percent, the 82 percent, the 77—rather, 78 percent—did you account for different occupations? Did you take the different life choices women make into consideration?
Because yes, we did, and the verdict is in: there’s still a pay gap. And it doesn’t matter how big or how small, or what factors were considered and controlled in the many studies done. Even if every woman, regardless of race, age, or anything else, if every woman made 99 cents for every dollar white men made, we would still have a pay gap worth talking about.
Madeline Poage is a Writing, Literature, and Publishing major from New Jersey. She’s a recent convert to tea drinking and enjoys Disney movies, punk rock, and realistic portrayals of women in the media.