Policy Buzz: Why Reducing the Pay Gap is Very Difficult

lavarr policy insightsEqual Pay for Equal Work. Here’s a message I received Tuesday from Peter Corroon and the Utah Democratic Party:

Today is EqualPayDay, the day the average woman’s salary catches up to what the average man earned last year. On average, women in the US earn 79 cents for every dollar a man makes.Here in Utah, the problem is even worse (we have the second-highest wage gap in the country), with Utah women earning only 67 cents to the dollar. This is unacceptable. It’s clear that Utah needs new leadership at all levels of government . . . (and then the message launches into a fundraising pitch).

As the husband of one (very patient) wife, the father of five daughters, and the brother of five sisters, I passionately believe that women ought to receive equal pay for equal work.

Unfortunately, the wage gap is one of those things that, like the weather, people love to talk about, but never do anything about. Corroon’s message certainly didn’t offer any solutions. The reason is that, like improving the weather, it’s actually really, really hard to shrink the pay gap.

That’s why, even in the White House, even in the congressional offices of some feminist lawmakers, women often don’t make as much as men if you compare average salaries.

Do you know an employer who purposely pays women less than men for equal work? I don’t. I’ve worked in a number of different jobs. I’ve run a small business myself. I’ve hired women and men. I’ve had women as bosses and partners. Everywhere I’ve worked, women have been on the same pay scales, were given the same opportunities as men, and women were highly valued.

Even so, I’m certain that if you looked at average salaries of 20 men and 20 women in any of the organizations I’ve worked in, the men’s average salary would be higher.

Is this discrimination? Does it show we value women less? Should women be rising up in anger?

No. What it shows is that a lot of women dropped out of the workforce for a period of time, usually to have a baby or for family reasons. When they returned, they didn’t have the same skills or experience as the men they started with. It shows that women didn’t always go after the intense jobs that require 15-hour days. It shows that women often chose career tracks that aren’t as high-paying, and women often aren’t as competitive as men in seeking the highest-paying jobs. It shows that women sometimes don’t want a promotion if it requires working until 7 p.m.every night.

That’s just the reality. There’s no question that most women will work during their lifetimes. There’s no question that single moms and women in low-income families need to make salaries that can support a family. But there’s no simple solution to make that happen for everyone.

Certainly, we ought to be outraged if, all things being equal, a woman is paid less than a man. If a woman has equal education and training, an equal job description, equal experience and number of years worked, and equal competency, we ought to demand that she is paid equally.

It’s been my experience, in my career, that women have been paid equally, for equal work, although I understand that statistics can be cited showing this isn’t always the case.

And then there’s this:  I firmly believe we ought not to discourage women (or men, for that matter) from staying home with children, creating a stable family life. Such families are just as important to the economy, to happiness and fulfillment, and to the success of society, as a woman who works and is paid as much as a man.

My wife, five daughters, and five sisters have at times worked, but they and their families have made the choice that, when possible, the mother would stay home with children and not be the primary breadwinner. I believe that is a perfectly rational and proper choice.

Of course, what it means is that when they re-enter the workforce, they will not make as much as the men who were their contemporaries in college. They won’t have as much experience or seniority, won’t have received as many promotions or pay increases.  

That’s a sacrifice many women (and their husbands and families) choose to make. And I believe that, under the right circumstances, it is a very good choice, one that is good for society, one they won’t regret.