By Tom Ford.
Twelve years into the 21st century and you could be forgiven for thinking that the issue of equal pay could not possibly be a contentious topic of political debate in a democracy. After all, considering it affects half the electorate and close to half the workforce, you would think it would be tantamount to political suicide to imply that paying a woman exactly the same amount as man, for exactly the same job, and for exactly the same number of hours was anything but okay. However, recent events in the US are shaking this precept to the core.
A few months ago in early April 2012, the protracted Republican primaries were coming to an all but definitive end, and for that matter, the Republicans’ chance of winning the election. This was because Mitt Romney’s triumph was overshadowed by a rather problematic accusation. Namely, that he and his party, were guilty of waging a ‘war on women’. Why? Because for the first time in decades, the Republicans had actually gone too far with regards to women’s health and sexual reproductive rights in a bid to win over core Primary supporters. As result, at its height in early April, support amongst the female electorate for Romney had plunged to a mere 38 percent, which would almost assure Obama’s victory. The situation dire, Mitt hauled the discussion back to something resembling the centre, and, with a little help from a Democrat gaff about his wife, returned coverage to the economy leaving the affair all but forgotten.
Not though amongst Democrat strategists. Having jaded the issue of social rights to death, many were eager to move the ‘War on Women’ onto the topic of equal pay, which, as you would expect, is far more consensual. Subsequently, Democrat members of the legislature introduced to the Senate the ‘Paycheck Fairness Act’ in an attempt to make the Republicans look, well, there is no other way to put it; really, really bad. This is because even when you account for response bias, numerous polls indicate close to 90 percent of registered American voters are in favour of the Act; a piece of legislation that seeks to enhance women’s legal means to tackle employers over discriminatory pay. Now, surely the Republican were not going to fall into this trap?
Well. Republican legislators voted against the Act along strict partisan lines, ensuring its defeat in the Senate on 6th June 2012. In fact, even the inaccurately nicknamed Massachusetts Moderate could not bring himself to bridge the divide, with Romney first keeping an all too conspicuous silence on the topic, and ending with a very unsubtle abstention. In any case, fortunately for the Republicans, the Democrats failed to capitalise from the debacle.
The media agenda fast moving on, we are now left with the puzzling question as to why the Republicans do not agree with equal pay. With ‘evil incarnate’ an illegitimate answer, we must turn our attention elsewhere.
Here, a good starting point would be Wisconsin Republican State Senator Glen Grotham who, following Wisconsin’s April 2012 repeal of the Equal Pay Act, knowingly declared: ‘money is more important for men’. In fact, according to Grotham, what pay difference that exists today boils down to divergent gender ‘goals in life’. ‘Take a hypothetical husband and wife who are both lawyers’, remarks Grotham; ‘but the husband is working 50 or 60 hours a week, going all out, making 200 grand a year. The woman takes time off, raises kids, is not go go go. Now they’re 50 years old. The husband is making 200 grand a year, the woman is making 40 grand a year. It wasn’t discrimination’, he exclaims. Building on his momentum, Grotham proceeds to conclude that this explains why ‘a huge number of discrimination claims are baseless’, why Wisconsin’s repeal of the Equal Pact Act was right, and why he had no choice but to support it, putting to an end, once and for all, to opportunistic women suing their employers and driving the entire state out of business in the process.
There you have it! Perhaps he is not the Republican’s most eloquent spokesman on the issue, but this is a succinct summary of the argument for why the Republicans could not allow the ‘Paycheck Fairness Act’ to pass. Women are not as ‘go go go’ as men, but some are willing to exploit the system, which for the most part, is not exploiting them. As a result, countries like China which do not have this legislature and who have women who are more ‘go go go’ (only being allowed to have one child helps) are out-competing the US. In fact, it is precisely this sort of legislation that is responsible for economic stagnation.
The argument laid bare, it is at this point that anyone with the slightest conscious towards social equity throws up their hands in despair and curses the Republican Party and all who support them. Should they? When a party decides to go against a bill backed by 77 percent of their card carrying members, it is worth stripping away the rhetoric people like Grotham employ, and seriously considering the underlying rationale.
The obvious answer is money. If ever there was an issue that fits the 1 percent, this must be it. However, with all the money in the World, you obviously cannot win an election by alienating half the population from the get-go. Therefore, a better answer for the Republican’s rationale might not only be campaign donations, but also ruthless economic practicality. If this disturbs you, it should. After all, is it a coincidence that equal pay is starting to become a political issue again?
With this in mind, consider for a moment the current situation in the West. Governments are saddled with unprecedented levels of sovereign debt; something that is generally being dealt with through ever-deeper austerity cuts. Meanwhile, as the playing field evens as technology and expertise spread, the rest of the World is catching up. So, can we realistically expect large swathes of our government to support and enforce equal pay? Just look at their own record in the public sector, which, with its gross gender imbalance in favour of women, is dire. Here, 70 percent of redundancies as result of austerity have fallen on women, something that goes a long way towards explaining why there are 4 million more women than men living under the US poverty line at the moment. Can they really risk hitting the private business with job cuts too?
On that note, discrimination is built into the private sector’s very operation, not necessarily due to backward values which is given more credit than it is due today, but because if a woman decides to have a child, she is biologically forced to take time off (it is not a choice as Grotham would have it, especially when she is denied the right to choose from the start). In turn, this costs a firm time, money, and a loss of expertise. In the UK for example, and in the presence of legislation, the pay gap in the private sector is 8.7 percent larger than the public one. Therefore, in the timid absence of enforcement, private firms will naturally discriminate against women regarding pay and employment, particularly when competition becomes ever more fierce.
Taken as a whole, this is a very worrying situation. With the state’s guiding hand gangrened through debt, austerity and chronic unemployment, we should not expect an invisible one to do a better job. Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that the issue will undoubtedly return in the debates to come, but it will most likely do so in the form of political point scoring leaving the underlying problems as unaddressed and unresolved as they ever were. Besides, the systemic economic beliefs both parties support strongly favour Romney’s position. Indeed, twelve years into the 21st century and the ability to hold half a nation hostage through the threat of not having jobs continues to remain, and understandably so given the climate, a far more powerful fear than the sense of injustice caused by unequal pay. No wonder then that the issue dropped off the radar the moment Romney reminded people of how bad the unemployment figures were.