It has been the talk of the nation since last Sunday’s Oscars – that moment when Patricia Arquette capped her Academy Award acceptance with a call for equal pay.
The “Boyhood” actress, a single mom in the film and real life, drew wild applause in the Kodak Theatre with her unexpected shoutout on behalf of women. The response, from half the audience at least, wasn’t surprising. Hollywood long has freely exploited women, and a series of hacked Sony emails last year showed that even big female stars and studio bosses are disgracefully underpaid compared to men in show business.
But the buzz around Arquette’s remarks has lasted long past the Oscar show’s closing credits. On “Fox & Friends,” right-wing pundits spent Monday morning in damage-control mode, insisting that women’s pay was equal enough, thank you. On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton drew wild applause at a networking conference for women in Silicon Valley.
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Even in quarters not usually associated with politics, the calls of “Right on!” echoed. When a female World Wrestling Entertainment executive tweeted a pro-Arquette remark, the Twitter-sphere erupted with furious chatter suggesting she put her money where her mouth was and do something about the pay disparity between male and female WWE wrestlers.
Who knew there was still so much life in a rallying cry that has echoed in the women’s movement for so long?
Well, families might have predicted it, if anyone bothered to ask. One reason pay equity has suddenly gathered momentum may be that a quarter of American households are headed by single moms.
Then there are the millions of two-income households finally emerging from a recession that taught them, firsthand, what the bank account looks like when Dad is laid off and everyone has to survive on Mom’s paycheck. After a month or two, and even the most conventionally minded couples start to wonder: Why is it so small?
Yes, things have improved. In 1963, when President John F. Kennedy signed the federal Equal Pay Act, women earned an average of about 59 cents to every dollar a man earned. Today, that figure is 78 cents nationally, and 84 cents in this state.
But the remaining gap has been stubborn, and can only partly be chalked up to women’s greater tendency to go into low-paying careers or go part-time to raise children. Latinas are only averaging 44 cents for every dollar earned by a white man.
Wage studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics routinely find that, from lawyers to teachers to janitors to members of the clergy, men consistently earn more than women almost regardless of occupation.
The median weekly pay for male nurses last year was $114 higher nationally than for female nurses. Among food service managers, it was $211 more for men than for women. Does the job performance really differ that much?
Meanwhile, where the pay is highest – tech, for instance – women are scarcest. As Clinton pointed out in her speech in Santa Clara, Forbes’ list of the top 100 venture capitalists last year had exactly four females.
This situation is neither sustainable nor fair, yet year after year, Congress rejects efforts to fix it. To that end, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, last week proposed legislation to strengthen California’s equal pay laws.
Jackson wants to make it harder to pay men and women different salaries for comparable work, and easier for workers to compare notes on who’s getting paid what in their workplace. Lobbyists representing California’s business interests almost certainly oppose her. And surely more needs to be done, from raising the minimum wage to shoring up family leave laws.
But more than 50 years after the Equal Pay Act, it’s obvious that time alone isn’t going to end one of the last remaining social injustices in our culture – the systematic ripping off of our mothers, daughters and sisters.
Women are shorted by more than $33.6 billion annually because of the wage gap, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, which advocates on women’s issues. Giving half the population what the other half gets would warrant a round of applause.