It was 50 years ago today that President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law — legislation making it illegal for employers to pay women and men differently for the same work.
Heck, I just started watching Mad Men this past weekend, and the portrayal of gender norms during that time period — including hilarious jokes like: “A man’s wife and lawyer are both drowning. He has to make a choice: lunch or a movie?” — has made me very thankful that I wasn’t born five decades earlier.
So first things first: Let’s take a moment and applaud our progress.
Got the cheering out of your system? Good. Now let’s admit that we still have an uphill battle in front of us — and maybe the steepest hill yet.
See, the trouble with progress is this: Once we eliminate overt oppression, it’s much harder to get folks to acknowledge that things are out-of-balance … and thus much harder to elicit change.
You’ve likely seen the damning data. A quick summary:
- Full-time working women make 77 cents for every dollar men make.
- Black women earn only 69 cents on the dollar.
- Latina women earn just 60 cents on the dollar.
- The pay discrepancy exists in all 50 states as well as the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the country.
But because women have come so far — graduating from college more than men, and increasingly being the breadwinner for their families — such disheartening data points are often explained away with vague, shrug-it-off phrases.
The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, for one, recently debunked “the biggest myth about the gender wage gap” by saying: Women aren’t starting out behind “so much as they’re choosing different jobs and losing ground later in their careers.” Sure, he’s right to an extent, as are other explanations for the discrepancy. Men indeed dominate the highest-paying industries, while women indeed leave the workforce more to start a families.
But that doesn’t make it OK.
And the fact that an on-average and at-minimum 23-cent difference in pay can in part be summed up by a vague and seemingly harmless statement like “losing ground later in their careers” illustrates a huge part of the problem.
Such a phrase prompts the question: “Why are they losing ground?” Yet Thompson refuses — or doesn’t feel the need — to answer it … and thus we never have to confront the fact that the answer isn’t always pretty. Consider that the median salary of single, childless women under the age of 30 was 8% higher than their male counterparts in 2010 … but single, childless women were the only group of females to hold a pay advantage.
There’s no doubt that motherhood plays a role in this reality … yet there seems to be a doubt over whether that’s a problem.
From personal experience, the number of men I have encountered to who seem to think a woman cannot function during a nine-month pregnancy, or that women who have families are less dedicated to their jobs, makes me certain that we cannot lump such “losing ground” all under the opt-out umbrella.
Heck, even if we were to admit that women with families to tend to are less dedicated to their jobs again raises the question of why. We’d probably hear vague generalizations about a maternal instinct and biological clock, again glossing over the reality of an often-unequal distribution of housework and still-evident second shift.
The bottom line: Having an explanation or chart or even 50 years of improvement doesn’t make things right. We have legislation in place — along with piles of excuses and assumptions — but even half a century later, we still have a long way to go.