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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks at House Democrats news conference to reintroduce the H.R.7 "Paycheck Fairness Act" on Capitol Hill in Washington, on January 30, 2019. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Could this House bill close the pay gap between women and men?

Democrats are hoping to push through legislation aimed at reducing the gender wage gap Tuesday — Equal Pay Day. But it faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which took up the bill Tuesday.

“Our economy can only succeed if women can succeed,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said during arguments on the Senate floor.

Economists say, while a good step forward, the legislation if passed would not eliminate pay disparity, which is created by a number of issues deeply ingrained in American culture.

Equal Pay Day, which the National Committee on Pay Equity has marked annually since 1996, symbolizes how far into the year a woman would have to work to earn as much as the average man earned the previous year.

Depending on which data is used, women who work full-time on average make about 81 percent of what men make, taking into account the fact that women tend to work less overtime and have lower-paying jobs. (Pew Research calculates the figure slightly higher, at 85 percent.) The disparity is larger when race is taken into account: Black women make 65 percent of white men’s earnings and Hispanic women make less than 62 percent, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, which the House of Representatives passed last week largely along party lines, aims to close that gap.

“It is about giving women the power to gain economic security for themselves and their families,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said at a news conference Tuesday.

Democrats have tried to pass similar bills for decades. Republicans have largely opposed the legislation, saying it would not do much to close the pay gap and would spur frivolous lawsuits.

Economists who have studied the gender pay gap say the legislation is not a silver bullet.

“It will help close the gap, but it will take a lot more,” said Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “This will help fight the pervasive gender discrimination that we see in the labor market, but it will not solve that.”

What the bill does

The House legislation aims to close pay gap by limiting the reasons employers can decide not to provide equal pay for men and women as outlined in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. The bill would ban employers from asking for salary history and requiring companies report their employees’ salaries broken down by sex, race and ethnic identity.

Even after controlling for a number of other factors, discrimination could account for up to 38 percent of the wage gap, said Ariane Hegewisch, the program director of Employment and Earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Estimates have found women doing the same work as men with the same qualifications earn about 92 percent of a man’s salary. If women were paid the same as men, accounting for number of hours, age, educational attainment, urban/rural status, and region of the country where they live, 60 percent of women would get a pay raise, Hegewisch’s research shows.

But the government can only do so much to enforce equal pay laws, Hegewisch said. While the legislation encourages companies to reveal their employees’ salaries, it’s not easy for employees to find out how much a male colleague makes compared to a female colleague. Even if that information were accessible, women would face an uphill battle in filing and winning lawsuits against companies.

“To say it will make a real difference — to some extent that depends on how seriously companies take this issues,” Hegewisch said. If companies voluntarily implement the policies without being forced to by lawsuits, that might have the biggest effect, she said.

Research shows women’s lower salaries are often self-perpetuating because companies will often offer prospective employees a raise based on their current salary..If women start at a lower number, they are likely to receive a lower salary at their new jobs. Barring companies from asking prospective employees about salary history, as the bill suggests, could help close that gap.

The bill also calls for women to be trained in how to negotiate a salary. A Monster.com survey found only 16 percent of women negotiate their salaries, a tactic that typically leads to higher pay. Teaching women how to negotiate could improve their salaries, but it could also cause problems, said Francine Blau, an economics professor at Cornell University.

“There could be some backlash against women when they negotiate because they aren’t behaving in what is perceived –wrongly of course– to be appropriate within their gender roles,” Blau said.

What the bill doesn’t do

There are a number of other areas that still need to be addressed if the U.S. is to make a dent in the gender pay gap, economists say.

The bill does not attempt to raise the federal minimum wage, for example, which would help women who make up a disproportionate number of low-wage workers. Nor does the legislation address the occupational differences between men and women. Though women now outpace men in educational attainment, they still tend to choose fields and jobs within those fields that pay the least. Thirty-two percent of people who major in environmental engineering — one of the lowest paying engineering specialities — are women, who comprise only 17 percent of petroleum engineers, which is the highest-paying engineering major, according to an analysis from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

There are a few factors that play into that. First, many jobs that are dominated by women, such as preschool teachers–are undervalued, and, therefore, are underpaid. But some high-paying jobs have also been tied to long hours and inflexible work schedules, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin said. Government policies such as paid parental leave and affordable, quality childcare could alleviate some of the burden on women, Goldin said. Some cities and states, such as Washington, D.C., and Oklahoma, are implementing universal preschool as a way to alleviate child care pressures on families. But policy solutions only go so far.

Goldin said the disparity will persist so long as traditional gender roles remain in place and women are viewed as the main child rearers and caretakers of the household.

Women still spend nearly an hour more per day planning and managing household and family activities than men, creating more scheduling conflicts between work and their personal lives. That can keep women from accepting jobs that require them to work longer hours or be on call, and, in exchange, have larger salaries. In contrast, men often feel they have more freedom to accept those higher-paying jobs because they do not spend as much time on household tasks.

If men chose not to work longer hours so they could share more of the workload at home, companies would have to find substitutes for their employees at work, and that would open the door for more women to step in and take more lucrative jobs.

“In some sense, the solution is so simple it’s been right under our noses,” Goldin said.

Progress in closing the gender pay gap has been slowing in recent years, in part due to growing inequality as a whole. But progress is still being made, albeit slowly. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates if the current rate of change were to continue, women and men in the U.S. will earn equal pay in 2059.

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