The U.S. Senate has an opportunity to make history this week by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has already been approved by the House.
As the bill notes, "many women continue to earn significantly lower pay than men for equal work." Indeed, newly analyzed data from 2009 indicate that women's median annual earnings are 23 percent less than those of men. This wage gap is even larger than it was in 2007, when women's median annual earnings were 22.2 percent less than those of men. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, white women were paid an average of only 75 cents for each dollar paid to white men, African-American women were paid an average of 62 cents for every dollar paid to white men, and Latina women were paid an average of 53 cents.
The Paycheck Fairness Act notes that, among other things, these pay disparities hurt working families, who depend on the wages of all members in order to get by. They also damage women's retirement accounts, thereby threatening these citizens' security. In addition, they harm the workings of the free market, since they "prevent the optimum utilization of available labor resources" and "burden commerce and the free flow of goods." Finally, they violate the Fifth Amendment and 14th Amendment, which guarantee people equal protection under the law.
However, the bill's passage is not assured. Opposing forces have rallied, seeking to defeat the measure. On Tuesday, Sept. 21, right-wing commentator Christina Hoff Sommers argued in The New York Times that employers have "little control" over the amounts they pay employees, that men earn more than women for good reasons, and that women as a demographic group tend to make "individual choices" that lead to lower pay than men. This language seems strange, however, and potentially even manipulative. If these choices tend to be made by women as a demographic group, then in what way are they "individual"?
Moreover, just what are these harmful "individual choices" that Hoff Sommers implies women should stop making in order to make an equal wage? Her op-ed column lists leaving the work force to take care of children or parents, valuing family-friendly workplaces, and prioritizing benefits over salaries. In this way, she asserts that a history of helping others, a desire to serve the greater good, and an interest in protecting dependents are legitimate grounds for devaluing an employee. By extension, she implies that those who are less integral to the successful functioning of their communities are rightfully rewarded for it.
It seems ironic to school a self-styled conservative in family values, but at the moment, it seems necessary.
The Paycheck Fairness Act simply closes loopholes in a law that was passed nearly 50 years ago. When job descriptions are equal, pay should be equal.
Elizabeth Galewski is president of the Madison Chapter of the National Organization for Women.