Why Equal Pay for Equal Work Won’t Cut It

Democrats are trying to improve the gender pay gap, but their plan comes up short.

Lilly Ledbetter takes the stage during day one of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 4, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
April 14, 2014, 1 a.m.

While Demo­crats on Cap­it­ol Hill push the Paycheck Fair­ness Act, crow­ing about “equal pay for equal work,” a pop­u­lar theme for this fall’s midterm elec­tions, the party’s rhet­or­ic glosses over a much lar­ger prob­lem. The real is­sue is not just that wo­men make less than men who are work­ing in sim­il­ar po­s­i­tions, but that wo­men are massively un­der­rep­res­en­ted in the coun­try’s highest-pay­ing jobs. And it’s un­clear if there’s any­thing Con­gress can do about it.

Many of the stat­ist­ics be­ing tossed around in the in­come-in­equal­ity ar­gu­ments on Cap­it­ol Hill speak to a deep­er prob­lem, one that won’t be solved by Demo­crats’ Paycheck Fair­ness Act or the Lilly Led­bet­ter Fair Pay Act they passed in 2009. Neither plan does any­thing to solve the real prob­lem in wage dis­par­ity between men and wo­men.

Re­pub­lic­ans, for ex­ample, are ham­mer­ing the White House for pay­ing wo­men 88 cents for every dol­lar they pay their male em­ploy­ees. But, the White House ar­gues, Re­pub­lic­ans are com­par­ing apples to or­anges. Wo­men in the most seni­or White House po­s­i­tions make more than their male col­leagues, but there are many more wo­men in less seni­or (and lower-pay­ing) White House jobs who are bring­ing down the av­er­age.

The White House has faced plenty of cri­ti­cism for the lack of gender di­versity in seni­or po­s­i­tions, something the ad­min­is­tra­tion has worked hard to re­verse over the past few years. But the gap re­mains, and the White House is hardly the only cul­prit.

There are just 23 fe­male CEOs in the For­tune 500 (still, it’s an in­crease from zero in 1995). In Wash­ing­ton, only 22 per­cent of non­profit ex­ec­ut­ives are wo­men, ac­cord­ing to our own Na­tion­al Journ­al sur­vey. The me­di­an in­come for those wo­men is about $60,000 (or 15 per­cent) less than for male non­profit ex­ec­ut­ives in D.C. Mean­while, fe­male chief ex­ec­ut­ives in gen­er­al make about 20 per­cent less than their male coun­ter­parts, ac­cord­ing to a study from the In­sti­tute for Wo­men’s Policy Re­search re­leased this month.

The IW­PR study shows that men are much more likely to hold high-pay­ing po­s­i­tions than wo­men in gen­er­al. In sev­en of the top 20 most com­mon oc­cu­pa­tions for men — in­clud­ing chief ex­ec­ut­ives, soft­ware de­velopers, gen­er­al and op­er­a­tions man­agers, sales rep­res­ent­at­ives for whole­salers and man­u­fac­tur­ing, po­lice of­ficers, ac­count­ants and aud­it­ors, and man­agers — men earn more than $1,000 per week. For wo­men, there are only four in the top 20 that pay so well.

Only one of the high-pay­ing jobs among the top 20 most com­mon oc­cu­pa­tion cat­egor­ies for men ap­pears in the top 20 for wo­men: ac­count­ants and aud­it­ors, where 62.3 per­cent of work­ers are fe­male. It rep­res­ents the sev­enth most com­mon oc­cu­pa­tion among wo­men and the 17th among men. Mean­while, the most com­mon oc­cu­pa­tion for men is “man­ager,” while for wo­men that is only the ninth most com­mon job title.

Among the top 20 most com­mon oc­cu­pa­tions for men and wo­men, men earn an av­er­age me­di­an in­come of $938 per week, while wo­men earn $702.

At the same time, wo­men are in­creas­ingly dom­in­at­ing in pre­par­a­tion for high­er-wage work. They’ve been earn­ing more bach­el­or’s de­grees, mas­ter’s de­grees, and doc­tor­ates than their male coun­ter­parts for years (wo­men began earn­ing more bach­el­or’s de­grees than men back in 1982, mas­ter’s de­grees in 1987, and doc­tor­ates in 2006), ac­cord­ing to data from the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment.

But that level of pre­pared­ness has yet to trans­late in­to high­er wages and bet­ter jobs for wo­men on the whole. House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi ar­gued last week that it may just be too early to see a change, but ac­know­ledged that Demo­crat­ic pro­pos­als mov­ing through Con­gress right now do little to ad­dress the lar­ger is­sue.

“We’re not talk­ing about wo­men mak­ing less be­cause they’re do­ing dif­fer­ent jobs. We’re talk­ing about them do­ing the same jobs in that par­tic­u­lar in­stance [with the Paycheck Fair­ness Act]. But we cer­tainly have to raise the pos­sib­il­it­ies for wo­men in cor­por­ate Amer­ica and en­tre­pren­eur­ship and risk-tak­ing in terms of small busi­nesses and the rest,” Pelosi said when asked about the gender gap in high-pay­ing po­s­i­tions.

The Demo­crat­ic lead­er poin­ted to le­gis­la­tion from the House Small Busi­ness Com­mit­tee, which would ad­dress a small frac­tion of that gap. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., in­tro­duced the bill in com­mit­tee last June that would re­quire the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to give pref­er­ence to “eco­nom­ic­ally dis­ad­vant­aged wo­men-owned small busi­ness[es]” as well as “wo­men-owned small busi­nesses in sub­stan­tially un­der­rep­res­en­ted in­dus­tries,” when hand­ing out con­tracts.

The private sec­tor is more dif­fi­cult, Pelosi ac­know­ledged, but em­phas­ized that chan­ging the rhet­or­ic about wo­men work­ing in “what used to be con­sidered non­tra­di­tion­al oc­cu­pa­tions which have paid high­er,” can be a good first step.

She also poin­ted to Janet Yel­len tak­ing over the Fed­er­al Re­serve Board, the first wo­man ever to head the coun­try’s cent­ral bank, as a mod­el, re­call­ing that at a meet­ing with lead­ers on Cap­it­ol Hill last month, Yel­len cred­ited much of the eco­nom­ic suc­cess of the 20th cen­tury to great­er work­force par­ti­cip­a­tion by wo­men, par­tic­u­larly in seni­or po­s­i­tions.

“Wo­men still re­main un­der­rep­res­en­ted at the highest levels in aca­demia, in gov­ern­ment, and in busi­ness. There are doubt­less nu­mer­ous reas­ons for this, and in fact eco­nom­ists them­selves are among those en­gaged in try­ing to un­der­stand the factors that ex­plain why more wo­men aren’t rising to high­er levels,” Yel­len said. “I hope we con­tin­ue to seek this un­der­stand­ing, in my field and oth­ers where wo­men are in the minor­ity, be­cause the be­ne­fits of great­er par­ti­cip­a­tion for wo­men, it seems to me, are clear and sub­stan­tial.”

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