Democrats Make Women Equality a Midterm Election Issue
Democrats Make Women Equality a Midterm Election Issue

WASHINGTON—The Democrats and the President want to make the pay disparity between men and women an issue in the upcoming midterm elections, putting Republicans on the defensive. Obama and his supporters often repeat U.S. Census data from a report in 2010 on female and male earnings, which found that women make 77 cents for every dollar men make—a statistic that some argue has been widely misconstrued.

The Department of Labor uses 81 cents on the dollar for the ratio of pay between women compared to men. The DOL says that the pay gap is even greater for African-American women and Latinas.

It’s become a more important issue over the years, as the composition of the workforce has changed. “In 1970, about 43 percent of women aged 16 and older were in the labor force; by 2007, over 59 percent were in labor force,” states the DOL.

President Obama and congressional Democrats came out in force on April 8th to mark what they proclaimed was “Equal Pay Day.” April 8th marks the average additional length of time from the beginning of this year that women would have to work to equal what men earned the previous year.

Pay Transparency

The president used the day to announce that he had issued two executive orders that could make the gender wage gap more transparent. One action prohibits federal contractors from retaliating if employees discuss their compensation with co-workers. The second executive order requires employers to provide the Department of Labor a breakdown of salaries and wages by race and gender. Though these executive orders are limited in reach, they could affect 26 million Americans who work for federal contractors, according to the New York Times.

Democrats also reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act to amend the 1963 Equal Pay Act, passed during President Kennedy’s tenure, which outlawed wage discrimination based on gender. The 77 cents on the dollar in 2010 shows that the pay gap between women and men has improved but has not closed completely the gap that was 59 cents in 1963.

Proponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act say that it would make pay discrepancies more transparent. It requires employers to prove that wage disparities are based on business necessity and qualifications such as education, training, and experience, and not gender. It also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who raise concerns or discuss with other employees about wage differences.

Sharing the stage with the president was Lilly Ledbetter,76, who worked for nearly two decades as a night supervisor for Alabama Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, according to Time. Shortly before her retirement, she discovered that she was paid significantly less than her male colleagues. In 1998, Ledbetter received $3,727 per month, while her male colleagues performing the same job were compensated $4,286 to $5,236 per month, according to Time. She sued Goodyear, and the jury awarded her $3 million later reduced to $300,000, but the Supreme Court, in a 5/4 decision, ruled against her because she had not filed her complaint within 180 days following the initial discriminatory check. Of course, Ledbetter was ignorant of the pay difference until near the end of her career.

Obama noted, “Over the course of Lilly’s career, she lost more than $200,000 in salary, even more in pension and Social Security benefits—both of which are pegged to salary—simply because she was a woman.”

Referring to his executive orders, Obama said, “Pay secrecy fosters discrimination and we should not tolerate it—not in federal contracting or anywhere else.”

Helping Women or Political Posturing?

President Obama said, “If Republicans in Congress want to prove me wrong, if they want to show that they, in fact, do care about women being paid the same as men, then show me.”

He said they could start the next day and vote yes for the Paycheck Fairness Act.

However, the Act failed to pass a procedural vote in the Senate on April 9 because it could not muster the 60 votes. A majority voted in favor of it, but not a single Republican senator would support it.

Republicans said that the bill was unnecessary because pay discrimination based on sex is already illegal. Because the bill would make employers liable to civil actions, Republicans said it would increase the number of civil lawsuits. Indeed, the bill does make it easier to file class-action lawsuits.

More generally, Republicans say that the bill is about politics and not about doing anything to reduce gender pay discrimination or improve life and opportunities for women. Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) on a blog April 17 in credit.com, wrote, “If a woman believes she has been discriminated against in the workplace—which is both unjust and repulsive—she has every legal recourse in place to remain protected.”

“The President and his Democratic colleagues continue to perpetuate the myth that Republicans do not support equal pay for equal work. This could not be further from the truth,” wrote Congresswoman Rodgers.

Rodgers wrote, “Let’s stop politicizing women and start helping them get ahead.” She noted the great strides women have made since 1950 when only 18 million were in the workforce compared to over 72 million today. She said the equal pay issue is too narrow of a focus. She wants to see better pay and “better lives for women.”

However, Ariane Hegewisch from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said, April 8, on the PBS Newshour that transparency on wage differences for federal contractors was critical. She said, “There’s social science research to show [that] if there’s transparency, the gender wage gap disappears.”

The bill had no chance of passing the Republican-controlled House if it had passed in the Senate. But its failure to become law doesn’t mean it isn’t significant. Democrats are trying to position themselves for the mid-term elections, hoping that women will perceive Democratic candidates as more favorable towards pay equality. Democrats want to make disparities in pay and other women issues a key issue for the campaign, hoping to head off a Republican takeover of the senate in November.

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