This post originally appeared at The American Prospect.
Senate Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act last week, a bill that would make it illegal for employers to punish workers for discussing wages and would require them to share pay information with the Employment Opportunity Commission. President Barack Obama has already signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from punishing employees who talk about their pay. These two actions were pegged to the somewhat made up holiday called “Equal Pay Day” celebrated Tuesday and were discussed by many in Washington in merely political terms: evidence of attempts by Democrats to woo women voters and a continuing sign of Republicans’ “difficulties” with them.
Elsewhere, pundits and writers wanted to discuss whether the pay gap really existed. A few years ago, some conservatives and a few liberals began to attack the much-talked-about fact that women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar as untrue, based largely on the idea that the gap itself was mostly accounted for by women’s “choices.” (The 77-cents-to-every-dollar gap describes the average difference between men and women’s salaries and has been stuck there for a decade.) It is largely true that much of the gap can be explained by what sociologists have started to call the motherhood penalty: women with children make less than women without children and the latter have nearly achieved parity with men in the same jobs. Yet when career choice and other factors are controlled for, women start out the first year after college making less than comparable men do and their salaries grow less over time. Some argue that the motherhood penalty can be explained by the fact that women are choosing to have children and are often taking some amount of time off work to take care of them when they’re young. The question of why there’s no fatherhood gap, or why men rarely choose to take time off to care for young children, remains unexplained.
The other component is that women dominate in college majors leading to fields with relatively low salaries, like early childhood education, while men dominate in the high-paying ones, like engineering. All of these things, however, ignore the fact that choices aren’t made in a vacuum and pretend as though the only real gender discrimination happens when a manager sits in his dark office poring over ledgers, dutifully subtracting 23 cents per dollar from every worker in the female column. Discrimination is more complicated and often internalized, in everything from little girls picking up subtle cues that they’re bad at math or building things, to pregnant women seeing their hours cut at work even when they haven’t asked for such a change or don’t want it. It also doesn’t account for an odd distinction made between “women’s” and “men’s” fields. Call yourself a janitor and you make about $3,000 more dollars a year than if you are a maid or a housekeeper.
As for stay-at-home mothers, the picture is more mixed. About two-thirds of the nation’s stay-at-home mothers are married and their husbands are working and most of them say they are home primarily to take care of their children. A small but growing share, 6 percent, say they are home because they can’t find a job. (That’s up from 1 percent in 2000.) Most mothers say they would like to work, at least part-time. The seven-point growth of stay-at-home mothers during the recession hints that at least some of it is because those women aren’t finding the jobs they like. The child care picture likely contributes to the push for women, especially single women, to stay at home to care for children, too. The cost of child care is increasingly too expensive for middle- and upper-income families and states don’t have enough money for the vouchers meant to help lower-income women. Women are much more likely to have minimum-wage jobs than men and female-headed households are more likely to be poor, so the costs far outpace their ability to pay.
Which brings me to another point: the gender wage gap contributes to poverty or near poverty. Added up over a year, the 23-cent pay-gap means women lose $11,000. They never make it up and it just accumulates over their lives. I spoke to a woman last week named Christoria Hughes, a 57-year-old who works in the cafeteria of a hospital in Pittsburgh. She and others are trying to unionize for better pay and working conditions while their employer, UMPC, keeps fighting it. Hughes makes $12.85 an hour, so she’s not exactly making minimum wage. She hasn’t made the case that she’s being discriminated against compared to the male workers in her unit. But her life captures the challenges many women face in the workforce. Hughes has worked for years in food service, but took time off to move to South Carolina and care for some of her seven grandchildren so that her daughter could continue to work. She continues to care for them now and lives with her daughters. They moved to Pittsburgh because one of her grandchildren enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh. Another daughter works at CVS and because of Obamacare, she’s on her mother’s health care plan, which costs Hughes $60 a pay period, but is aging out soon. Hughes works next to someone who’s been at the hospital for 30 years and makes only $13 an hour. “We just want to be able to take care of our family,” she says. “The hospital says you’re only going to be working there a short time, but a short time turns into a long time when you’re trying to make a family. When what you’re making is enough to get by and you want to get ahead. I was raised in a poor household. We tried to get better and better and better. When you have jobs like this…” Hughes’s life doesn’t feel full of choices.
Mitch McConnell, leader of Republicans in the Senate, acknowledged that more women live in poverty now than before. “In other words,” he was quoted saying in The New York Times, “When it comes to American women over all, what we’ve seen over the past five and a half years is less income and more poverty. That’s the story Senate Democrats don’t want to talk about.” What does McConnell think the act was for, if not to improve the economic lives of women?