During President Obama’s recent State of the Union message, the President discussed plans to further reduce the national deficit, create opportunities for manufacturing, close loopholes in the tax code, and further energy production. In typical State of the Union fashion, he proposed many grandiose policies with enthusiastic delivery for the kind consideration of Congress and the American populous.
Typically I am easily wooed with a broad national platform for change. This year however, I noticed an emotional response from within my spirit after hearing a small portion of the speech where the President addressed wages. One highly memorable statistic most likely reverberated throughout the female consciousness in living rooms from San Francisco to Jacksonville. I’d like to personally congratulate the government employee at the Census Bureau that was responsible for providing this factual treasure to the speechwriters of the State of the Union address. He or she is now a national treasure among American women.
It seems that most articles and headlines we see in the media these days speak to the need for an increase in our national minimum wage. Most of us can all agree that our fast food and sanitation workers are clearly overworked and underpaid and could use a boost, but we are too pacified with the status quo to justify this increase in Uncle Sam’s bottom line. It seems that we have been missing this information in our national discourse about discrimination towards women as it relates to their pay.
The moment I referred to earlier in the SOTU address that caused me to audibly say “amen”, was when the President of the United States whole hog went to bat for the working woman. He began by saying that, “you know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.” An embarrassment? Did I just hear the President say that this policy involving inequality in gender pay was an embarrassment? I think so. He then went on to say that “women deserve equal pay for equal work,” and that she “deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job.” Was this President not of my gender and personally not able to relate to the experience of giving birth to live young going to bat for me? Could he possibly understand and empathize with me, and my beloved 50% of the American workforce?
And then to add to my joy, he referenced one of my favorite contemporary television programs, Mad Men, which boldly and dramatically depicts social oppression and discrimination in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He suggested that America might do away with policies that belong in a Mad Men episode. It was an appropriate and needed comparison.
Some have already begun to carry this torch declaring there clearly is a wage gap. They have argued that differences in things labeled “life choices” of men and women have made it challenging to make simple comparisons. An example of a “life choice” might be a woman staying home for a period of time to care for her children. And I’m guessing that “life choices” consequently are not rewarded in the pay stubs of working women.
President Obama is said to have used a figure from the Census Bureau that makes the disparity between the sexes appear the greatest, in order to make the best cause for the American woman. Another statistic from The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the gap is actually only 19 cents, not 23, when looking at wages earned week to week. Some say the gap is smaller, only 14 cents if you compare wages on an hourly basis (Kessler, 2014).
It is just plain disappointing to me that in 2014 there is a need for women to advocate for their own wages in the workplace. Why are we even talking about this in 2014? Doesn’t every human being have a mother? Don’t we all understand the great sacrifice, labor and effort our mothers make to bring up our children? And how are we valuing these individuals who give life to the planet? We give them a smaller paycheck for their “life choices,” fearful that if we employ them, we might not get as much out of them as we would a man. We have female leadership in the highest levels of leadership and oversight in our government, education and economic sectors. American women are powerfully serving in our executive, judicial and legislative branches.
Our U.S. government has enacted legislation to address employment discrimination. Efforts such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment protect women’s rights to equal access to education and employment opportunities. Despite these efforts, this conversation is still a part of our national discourse (Mendel, 2012).
Even very recent legislation in 2009, known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, allows salary discrimination cases to be heard in courts (Mendel, 2012). Although this should make me feel relief as a woman, I don’t feel relief. I feel exhausted, thinking about how in the world a woman faced with going into litigation over her salary would ever have the fortitude to do that considering all her other obligations and responsibilities. Other protections provided by affirmative action legislation require schools and employers to encourage participation by groups that might be underrepresented. Also, a National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force was created to bring awareness by educating the public on wage inequality and how to enforce wage inequality laws.
Despite all this, discrimination is still occurring in the workplace. Employers can definitely pay unequal wages for equal work, fill different positions with a different kind of worker, and limit availability of jobs through discriminatory practices. If government policies force firms to pay equal wages, an organization may simply choose to not hire women. Wouldn’t that be a great way to reward our female population for the great endeavor of carrying our unborn children and bringing them into life on the planet? Next time you are at the water cooler, consider whether or not your organization is advocating for equality for the working woman and if not, why?
Kessler, G. (2014). Fact Checking the 2014 State of the Union Address. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2014/01/28/fact-checking-the-2014-state-of-the-union-address/
Mendel, L. (2012). The earnings puzzle: why do women earn less than men? Review of business research, 12(4), 107.