Equal Pay Day and the elusive gender pay gap

equal-pay-day-gender-gapBy Elizabeth Kristen

April 8, 2014, is “Equal Pay Day” in the United States. On average, women earn less than men. In fact, in 2012, full-time working women earned only 77% of what men made. That means the average woman must work four additional months—until April 8—to earn the same amount of money as a man. Equal Pay Day is yearly event meant to raise awareness of the gender pay gap.

Data shows that the gender pay gap is real. According to the AAUW, women just out of college earn 7% less than their male peers. As women get older, the pay gap gets worse: women over 35 earn 75-80% of what men make. And there’s nowhere to hide. The pay gap exists in all 50 states.

Although several US laws protect women from pay discrimination, the gender pay gap persists and improvement has recently come to a halt. Observers offer different solutions based on what they see as the root cause. For example, some agitate for legislation to address modern discriminatory employer practices. Some want to raise the minimum wage because women make up a whopping two-thirds of minimum-wage earners. Others train women to “lean in” to fight stereotypes and gendered roles. All of these seem to be viable contributors to this injustice.

Critics say that the gender pay gap is a fallacy. The argument is that women’s “life choices,” nothing more sinister, account for the gap: women tend to choose lower-compensated professions, decline to move for better opportunities, want more flexible schedules, and etc. Scholars dubbed this phenomenon the Mommy Penalty. Because women devote part of their lives to caring for their families, women work less and earn less.  The critics argue that such choices would hinder the progress of anyone’s career, male or female.

But the real fallacy is the “life choices” argument.  First of all, so-called life choices cannot fully explain the gender gap. According to a study by the Center for American Progress, 41.1% of the pay gap “cannot be explained by characteristics of women or their jobs.” “Life choices,” to use the questionable term, cannot account for the disparity.

Second, if workers who have care-giving responsibilities have to make compromises that burden their careers, then that’s an unacceptable contribution to the gender pay gap. And with women accounting for two-thirds of all caregivers, the penalties disproportionately impact women. With better leave laws and more flexible standards, valuable workers would not have to sacrifice their careers if family life calls them home. One day, I hope we reframe this issue and push for a more family friendly workplace notwithstanding sex, gender, or conventionality.

Although the laws are not perfect, California is at the forefront on family leave law, providing several strong statutes with worker-friendly presumptions. In total, California’s work and family laws, including the Pregnancy Disability law, the California Family Rights Act, Paid Family Leave, Kin Care, and the Family-School Partnership Act, mark a strong public policy in support of working families.

Strong family leave laws, however, are only part of the picture. California still has a way to go before it closes its gender pay gap. The Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center is part of the Equal Pay Today! campaign. The campaign has a 5-point platform to end unequal pay practices. Check out the website for details and for ways to get involved.

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

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