Senate Democrats and President Obama are spending much of this week trying to rally support for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would attempt to decrease the pay gap between men and women by, among other things, making it illegal for employers to punish employees for talking about their compensation. The action surrounding the bill is all about messaging: It has virtually no chance of becoming law, but it could serve as a political focus for the 2014 midterm campaign.
But the way the bill is being sold to the public doesn't get at the full picture of the economic inequality between men and women. It's not just about the pay gap, where women make either 77 percent or 82 percent of what men make, depending on who you ask.
Economic mobility is distinctly different for daughters than it is for sons.
Adjusted for inflation, daughters in all economic groups from 2001 to 2009 were working more hours and earning greater hourly wages than their mothers did from 1968 to 1972, according to new research from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
That translates to a greater overall percentage wage increase than sons made over that period compared with their fathers. So that's the good news for economic equality. The bad news: Across all wage quintiles, daughters over the same time period are still earning less than their fathers did roughly 30 years ago by median hourly wage, adjusted for inflation.
To look at the issue a bit differently: While a large majority of women now make more than women did 30-plus years ago, a much smaller percentage of women are now earning more than men did back then.
That said, the gender pay gap has shrunk dramatically in the past 30 years — Pew has the shrinkage at 20 cents an hour, down to 16 cents today from 36 cents in 1980. But the mobility picture over that time frame is hazier across genders. As Richard V. Reeves and Joanna Venator recently laid out at Brookings, it's just a bit harder for women to be upwardly mobile than it is for men.
Women born to parents in the lowest-income quintile are much more likely to stay there than men born to parents at the bottom are, and they're less likely than those men to make it to some of the higher quintiles:
And nearly across the economic board, women are at a greater risk of downward mobility than men are.
Economic fairness between genders isn't just about the difference in an hourly wage. It's also about how the overall economy treats men and women, what risks they see, and what chances they see for improvement over past generations. It's about pay, but it's also about the chances of success, especially for women who are single mothers. Over the last several decades, women have not seen the same economic advantages as men. It's a more complicated problem. But Congress is extremely unlikely to do anything to alter paychecks, so there's no real reason to think Democrats and Republicans will be able to find common ground to address mobility.