Gender Politics

09.27.14 10:45 AM ET

The Gender-Pay Gap: It’s Real, and Yes, It’s Sexism

One big but little appreciated reason for our rampant inequality: Half the workforce is routinely treated with grotesque unfairness.

Last week, Emma Watson, the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador better known as Hermione from Harry Potter, delivered a speech to the delegates gathered in New York championing feminism and pledging to end gender inequality. Big task! Her campaign will tackle, among other things, the fact that women are paid so much less than men, even in countries like the United States and the U.K., where we are allegedly no longer discriminated against. (As if to illustrate the rampant sexism that still exists, hackers threatened to release nude photos of her after her speech.)

In tackling this issue, Watson is, whether she knows it or not, also implicitly taking on a broader issue. While most people never make this connection, it’s a fact that gender inequality is a big driver of income inequality. Women are paid less than men overall—78 cents to their male counterparts’ dollar according to a survey this year, which is a whole penny more than it was for the past decade!—and mothers are paid even less. Black women and Latinas are heavily discriminated against in the workplace, making only 64 and 56 cents for every dollar, respectively, paid to white men. Black and Latina mothers bring home more than half of their families’ income, and female-headed houses are the most likely to be poor. If we made an effort to pay women more fairly, we’d go a long way toward raising the wages of most of America’s low-income families.

If you asked conservatives in this country, however, they would claim no such inequality exists. It’s one of the reasons the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would close some of the legal loopholes allowing companies to pay their female employees less, is still stuck in the Senate. Republicans blocked it, for the second time, from coming up to a vote earlier this month. Every single Republican who showed up to vote, including the party’s three women, voted against.

The top Republican in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, denigrated the bill as a political stunt. Rather than seeking an actual solution to discrimination against women, Democrats, he said, were merely trying to woo female voters this November: “They plan to devote almost all the remaining time between now and November to what Democrats like to call ‘messaging bills. These are bills designed intentionally to fail so that Democrats can make campaign ads about them failing.” If McConnell really thinks that, then why not foil their scheme by voting yes?

Conservatives have spent the last several years trying to convince people that the gender-pay gap is made up, or just a result of the life choices women make. Christina Hoff Sommers, a conservative commentator, likes to trot out the fact that men tend to tend toward higher-paying jobs like those in engineering, while women are more likely to end up in education or childcare. That ignores, however, how girls are discriminated against in math education, and the fact that stereotypes persist about what kinds of jobs are appropriate for girls to aspire to.

Another study gender-pay-gap truthers bring up is one that found that young women in some cities are actually paid more than men. This study, however, doesn’t control for education, and places like New York City and Los Angeles draw women who have gone to college and have high proportions of uneducated young men to compare them to. Worse, this still isn’t true for young women who have children, and most women become mothers at some point in their lives. Do women choose to be mothers? Sure. But men also choose to be fathers, and their paychecks aren’t docked for it.

That’s only the beginning. Women are cheated in business negotiations, are less likely to ask for and get raises, are given raises and promotions less often even when they do ask for them, and those who are in manager positions are often judged more harshly than their male counterparts.

Republicans would rather talk about the “breakdown” of the family than the fact that women aren’t treated fairly in the workplace. Here’s the logic: the fact that female-headed households are more likely to be poor means that marriage is the solution for poverty. Here’s the problem: Who are women going to marry?

Set aside for a moment that that logic is specious in the first place. The economic woes of the Great Recession have led to fewer marriages. According to another study that came out last week, from Pew, women want their male partners to have a steady job. Because the recent crisis hit men pretty hard, women are finding fewer mates.

This is especially true in low-income communities, where I’ve spent a lot of time reporting. Not long ago, men without college educations could get a pretty decent, well-paying job that provided a ladder into the middle class. Those have eroded. Yet because gender stereotypes persist, men who are going without work aren’t doing any more to pitch in at home, leaving women to do all the work. No wonder fewer of them are getting and staying married!

With women being blocked in these ways from advancing in their careers, no wonder inequality persists. Half the population isn’t making what it should be making.  Ensuring women’s fair pay would help families at every income level, but it could also go a long way toward lifting families at the bottom. That’s what Republicans don’t want to do, and that’s why they keep blocking the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Which is why it’s important that Emma Watson has come out as a feminist. After all, a woman who spent her early years playing Hermione might know a thing or two about the feminist work still to be done: In the Harry Potter books she did all the hard work, and her superstar male sidekick went and stole all the credit.