Editorials

How to get beyond Equal Pay Day

A bill to improve pay for cheerleaders like the Oakland Raiders’ Raiderettes, who sued the NFL franchise over compensation, is just one of many pay equity measures pending in California this year.
A bill to improve pay for cheerleaders like the Oakland Raiders’ Raiderettes, who sued the NFL franchise over compensation, is just one of many pay equity measures pending in California this year. The Miami Herald/2010

Another National Equal Pay Day, another handful of change on the dollar. On Tuesday, the nation takes stock of the progress women have made, or not, in catching up with men’s pay.

Times have changed since the “Mad Men” days when women averaged 59 cents for every dollar a man earned. But not so much that women still aren’t playing catch-up across the board, from Silicon Valley to the state Legislature to your local hospital’s nursing station.

Now, depending on how the statistics are sliced, women nationally average between 77 and 82 percent of what men make, in part because most minimum wage workers are female. California women do slightly better at about 84 percent. (Unless they’re Latinas, in which case they’re earning just 44 cents on the dollar compared to an average white male worker’s pay.)

That’s the bad news. The good news is that pay equity is on the nation’s radar, with Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy likely to further elevate the debate.

Critics paint pay equity as a feminist non-issue; women, they say, just are more likely to trade job advancement for time with children.

But even accounting for such tradeoffs, women earn less. And the push is more about demographics than dogma. Women have now been in the workforce for so long that a child born after 1980 never knew a time when the majority of women weren’t either looking for a job or working. A woman is now the breadwinner or co-breadwinner in a record 40 percent of U.S. homes.

That’s a lot of households left to wonder why Mom keeps getting underpaid, no matter how much she’s promoted. Last month, congressional Democrats once again introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would toughen remedies for wage discrimination and ban retaliation against workers who disclose their wages. Yet once again, Republicans are blocking it.

So California is taking the initiative. Next week, a bill requiring employers to pay comparable wages for comparable work and deterring retaliation against workers who compare paychecks will be taken up by its first legislative committee. Another pending proposal would prohibit employers from seeking job candidates’ salary histories, leveling the playing field a bit for workers who aren’t used to negotiating, typically women.

Yet another takes aim at professional sports teams, whose long exploitation of cheerleaders led last year to a flurry of high-profile lawsuits. Its author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, says that because many aren’t classified as team employees, but treated as volunteers or contractors, NFL and NBA cheerleaders typically earn less than the mostly male mascots.

In these and a bevy of other proposals to improve family leave and raise the minimum wage, California should seize this moment. Fair pay shouldn’t be a civil rights issue for half the population; every day should be equal pay day. Women deserve more than small change.

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