Politics

04.09.14

How Republicans Can Win the Equal Pay Debate

The gender pay gap is no black and white issue. If the Republicans stopped doing stupid things, this is an argument they could win.

Though it didn’t seem possible that the GOP could lower its standing with women any further, the party has managed to outdo itself with recent rhetoric around “Equal Pay Day.” While the president and Democrats have positioned themselves as the party of “equality” (who wants to be against that?) Republicans have spent the last few days sounding as though they wish to recapture the glory days of Todd Akin and other election-losing loudmouths.

With midterm elections on the horizon, the timing is particularly puzzling. The Republicans are thought to be on the verge of taking back the Senate, or at least, they were until the president’s ingenious Equal Pay move, and the GOP’s panicked, bumbling response; today they voted to block the Paycheck Fairness Act, ensuring that it did not reach the 60-vote threshold for a debate.

If Republicans shut up and play their cards right on this issue, however, it could bolster longstanding conservative arguments about the gender equality debate, and may even settle the debate in their favor once and for all.

Before Mitch McConnell waded clumsily into the debate, it looked a winnable argument for the Republicans. When word got out that President Obama would use executive action to compel federal contractors to report race and gender within compensation data, and to prohibit retaliation against employees who discuss payment, Republicans pounced. A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee labeled the move, and the Bill being touted by Democrats, as “desperate.” 

The fact of the matter is the debate over unequal pay is not black and white nor is it a clear-cut debate over sexism. If it were, President Obama would have some explaining to do. Data analyzed this week found that the median salary for female White House employees is 12% lower than that of male employees.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney addressed the matter by saying: “What I can tell you is that we have as an institution here have aggressively addressed this challenge, and obviously, though, at the 88 cents that you cite, that is not a hundred, but it is better than the national average. And when it comes to the bottom line that women who do the same work as men have to be paid the same, there is no question that that is happening here at the White House at every level.” 

Republicans should send Carney a thank you bouquet. He unwittingly made their argument for them—that unequal pay has little to do with sexism at all—it’s just that he made it more coherently than they did. By the same token he also made a compelling case for why Republicans should applaud the president’s recent executive actions and support the Paycheck Fairness Act if it comes back to the Senate floor closer to the election, as the Democratic leadership has promised.

A 2010 analysis of U.S. Census data found that childless, single women in their twenties actually earned more than their male counterparts. This seemed to give credence to long-held suspicions that there is much less of a gender pay gap than a mommy gap. The reason I used the term “mommy gap” as opposed to “parent gap” is because women are still more likely to take on the bulk of the child rearing responsibilities. While the number of stay-at-home dads has increased in recent years to 3.5%, that number is dwarfed by the number of stay at home mothers. A new study from Pew out this week found that the number of stay at home moms has also increased noticeably for the first time in years, 29% of women are now stay home mothers.

As I have previously written, multiple studies have found that the more children a woman has the more it decreases her earning potential. (A study from the nineties put the economic penalty at 7% two more recent studies put the penalty at 5%). Now it is possible, and a reality, that in some instances those economic penalties are due strictly to gender or parental bias. An employer may wrongly assume that a mother with three small children is not capable of thriving in a position that would require weekly travel, for instance, and therefore that woman is not given the opportunity to move up the ladder. But it is also possible that a mother of three small children will decide, as mine did, that being available to attend dance recitals, and PTA meetings is important, and she may ultimately not pursue the career opportunities that would make attending such events impossible.

My guess is that this is what explains the White House pay gap. I do not believe the president or his senior staff, harbor any gender bias. But I do believe that some of the best and brightest women in the country who could fill some of the better paying, senior White House roles may have decided to put their families first in a way men are more reluctant to do. This may be an egregious stereotype, but fundamentally it’s one I believe to be true. Few men offered a job as White House Chief of Staff would say, “It’s a great offer, but I will never get these years back with my kids and I simply can’t take an 18-hour-a-day job.” But I can think of plenty of women who might say that. And I don’t think they would be wrong to do so. What I am saying is choices have consequences. The president has admitted not spending as much time with his family as he would’ve liked while building his political career. But his consolation prize is that he gets to be president. For some parents no consolation prize is great enough to trade precious time with their families. The parents who are more likely to feel that way are women, and that is reflected in pay. 

Which is why I believe the president’s executive actions and the Paycheck Fairness Act are terrific. As I argued in a previous piece for The Daily Beast I think lack of honest dialogue and transparency around these issues hurts women in the long run. For instance, if employers could legally ask questions about employees’ parental plans, maybe women wouldn’t be victims of some of the stereotypes that ultimately lead to unfair discrimination in pay.

The transparency of White House compensation data forced the White House to face its critics and questions about its compensation practices head on. Ultimately it affirmed the official position that it pays people equally for equal performance. If conservatives are convinced that the gender wage gap has little to do with gender and is mostly due to family commitments and job performance, than the new reporting requirements championed by the president and outlined in the Paycheck Fairness Act will lead to similar transparency nationwide. So Republicans should get out of their own way and get out of the way of Democrats’ equal pay efforts. In the long run it will give more credibility to conservative arguments that the gender pay gap isn’t really about gender at all. But if Republicans keep opposing such efforts, they will simply give Democrats more ammunition over the so-called “War on Women.” The war already cost Republicans one election, and it could well cost them another.