April 8 is the date on which the League of Nations assembled, the Senate passed the Civil Rights Bill, and “Twin Peaks” premiered on television, and this year, it also marked Equal Pay Day in the United States. The rhyming date in fact marks a far less amusing reality: Men and women continue to earn different wages for the same job. Although it is clear that wage inequality does happen and must be stopped, I find myself among a small minority of the people whom this date is supposed to “help” who takes issue with some of the principles of Equal Pay Day and vocalizes a desire for a more fruitful discussion of wage inequality in America; I ask that in the future, others do the same.
Equal Pay Day espouses a belief entirely in keeping with my own philosophy: That all people should be compensated equally for doing the same job. Supporters of the day use the press coverage to highlight the discrepancy in wages based on gender, pointing to a continued and substantial difference in salaries for women despite the continued passage of equal pay legislation. Currently, the most popular statistic circulated on daytime television and economic blogs alike states that the average woman makes the 77 cents for every dollar the average man makes.
However, this commonly cited statistic marks the first flaw of Equal Pay Day: It over-generalizes the problem of unjust compensation. While acknowledging that men and women are not compensated equally in the workplace, this reliance on “average” fails to recognize the full extent of wage inequality. The first problem is that the average wage of a man used by those organizing Equal Pay Day is actually only the standard wage of a white male, thus failing to recognize that white males are commonly privileged in terms of compensation over men of color. Secondly, the 77 cent figure fails to acknowledge the pay shortfall for women of color. African-American women receive approximately 64 cents for every dollar earned by a white male, while Latinas earn 55 cents per dollar (The Huffington Post, “Today is Equal Pay Day—No One’s Favorite Holiday,” 04.08.2014). Equal Pay Day overlooks race-based discrimination in the workplace, an injustice that is just as harmful as gender-based inequality. It is a sad truth that not all women are paid equally and that women are not paid the same amount as men; we should not allow injustice in one area entirely disguise the other injustices. What would be more just for all parties involved—both the women whom the day is supposed to help and the men whose privileges are criticized—would be to select a date without the connection to the so-called “average” wage of a woman.
Equal Pay Day focuses on those moments when supposedly equal male and female employees are compensated differently. While this does occur and requires redress, my question is: Why stop criticizing workplace inequality there? The problems of imbalanced compensation are more complex than the artificial “equal candidate” scenario. For example, a White House statistic shows that more than half of women have reported “that they are either discouraged or forbidden from discussing their wages” (International Business Times, “Equal Pay Day 2014: Wage Gap Debate Hits Fever Pitch, Sparks Backlash, As White House Pushes Fairness Act,” 04.08.2014). While fairly recent changes in the law allow women to discuss their compensation—a victory for equal pay advocates—it is disappointing to see that this number remains so high. Such a concerted effort to stifle women from learning about their financial situation and potentially from petitioning for increased benefits.
Another issue excluded from criticisms rendered on Equal Pay Day is that over their lifetimes, women have significantly lower earning potential than men due to preferential treatment for men in promotion deliberations, and when considering potential career paths. According to the Pew Research Center: “Even though women have increased their presence in higher-paying jobs traditionally dominated by men, such as professional and managerial positions, women as a whole continue to work in lower-paying occupations than men do” (“On Equal Pay Day, key facts about the gender pay gap,” 04.08.2014). Additionally, due to the societal pressure and cultural norm of women staying home to nurture offspring, nearly 40 percent of women take significant time off of work to care for children as compared to less than one-quarter of men who admitted to doing the same (The Academy of Management, “The Gender Pay Gap Have Women Gone as Far as They Can?,” 02.02.2007). This practice disproportionately hinders women’s salary prospects directly and indirectly through the promotion process. Failing to incorporate these issues into the discussion reduced the effectiveness of Equal Pay day, rendering it more of a gimmick to temporarily appease the 66 million women, or 47 percent of America’s workforce, rather than an effective tool for change.
Finally, why are we seemingly content to talk about this issue on a single day? Shouldn’t we, as supporters of equal pay, be doing as much as possible to continue making this a headline story instead of harnessing all the attention on a 24-hour cycle? While Senate Democrats have tried to use hype from Equal Pay Day to launch the latest iteration of equal pay legislation—The Paycheck Fairness Act of 2014—the many other political actions of the day serve to limit rather than expand the influence of Equal Pay Day. President Obama announced two executive orders on April 8 related to the gender wage gap, each of which deserve praise and attention in their own right. Why limit public discourse of their potential benefits by saddling them to this single day?
Instead of devoting so much attention to this single, statistically arbitrary date, politicians who pledge allegiance to closing the wage gap need to wake up and realize that paying attention to this issue for one day or one week each year is not enough, and we as constituents need to demand better of our representatives. 72 percent of women and 61 percent of men believed that “this country needs to continue making changes to give men and women equality in the workplace,” so we should insist on more progress (Pew Research Center, “On Equal Pay Day, key facts about the gender pay gap,” 04.08.2014).
We should also demand improvement from both sides of the aisles in terms of their actions every day of the year. Although more fiscally conservative leaders and think tanks comprise the largest critics of government intervention in this business practice, the ignorant or condescending tones are still bipartisan. Countless Democrats have bemoaned the state of the gender gap and the president has coupled several steps to ensure equal pay in the workforce with forceful words, and yet, according to the American Enterprise Institute, his White House still only pays female staffers approximately 88 cents compared to similarly employed male workers (no racial breakdown was included in this study) (“Gender wage gap at the White House: Female staffers are paid only 88 cents for every dollar paid to men,” 04.13.2014). Advocates for change should look to changing the rhetoric of both parties if they really want to improve women’s financial realities.
Equal Pay Day has been an American institution for almost twenty years, and if nothing changes, then we will see Equal Pay Days until at least 2058. So, however critical discussing the gender wage gap is, I propose we demand some serious changes to Equal Pay Day for the good of all involved. Advocating for equal compensation should not shy away from discussing issues of racial inequality, or be separate from tackling the deeper institutional biases harming women; instead, activists and politicians alike should continue to speak about these problems often and demand that action happens 365 days a year instead of just one.
While its history is long-standing and its effectiveness is at least somewhat substantial, I can proudly say that as a feminist and a future employee, for many reasons, I do not want to be marking Equal Pay Day through to my retirement and nor should I have to do so; women deserve better and we should all demand more of ourselves, our politicians, and the other 364 days of the year.
—Bethan Johnson ’15 is an English and history double major.