A New Equality?

In Ellen Goodman’s 2/12/09 column, “A Dubious Equality,” she points out that women are actually faring better than men in this economy: with eight out of ten men losing their jobs, and fewer (although not much fewer) women losing theirs, women are making up an almost equal percentage of the American work force. Not only that, but when the male breadwinners become unemployed, women are stepping up to the plate and taking their places.

The big problem with this picture is that women cannot in most cases make up the difference: they don’t usually earn as much as their husbands did. Their jobs are concentrated in the “helping” professions, like education and health services, which are traditionally seen as women’s jobs and do not pay as well as “men’s jobs. ” And that doesn’t even take into account all the promotions that women are denied because they’re not considered “reliable” (what with all the time off they want to have to have and take care of families).

One of two things could start happening in this economic atmosphere: women could start demanding what they deserve because they’re the only ones working, and/or men could start infiltrating women’s jobs, much like when the men came back from WWII and took over the jobs women had been filling while they were gone. If the latter happens, what we could very well see is that they will be paid more than the women had been paid for the same jobs. Employers will be slow to compensate women “because they’re supporting a family,” because it’s not seen as natural or proper. It will also be seen as temporary: as soon as the man goes back to work, the woman will quit, or start wanting time off again.

The only thing women have going for them is that men often don’t want to take jobs that are beneath them, so women have these lower-status jobs to themselves. Not only that, but a man might be turned down for a job because he’s “over-qualified.” Employers rarely see women as over-qualified; they’re automatically not considered to be as qualified just because they’re women. Women will get these less-desirable jobs because they’re considered to be less-desirable employees. Since these are the jobs that are “safe” these days, women can expect a certain amount of job security.

Lucky us.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

On January 29th, President Obama signed his first bill into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This reverses a 2007 Supreme Court decision which said that a pay discrimination claim must be filed within 180 days of the first offense. The bill is named after a woman who didn’t find out until she had worked at Goodyear for 19 years that she was making less than all the other supervisors even though she had more experience. A jury ruled in her favor but the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, reversed the ruling, despite decades of legal precedent which supported Ledbetter’s case.

Foes of the bill (mainly Republicans and business leaders–surprise!) maintain that it will cause more lawsuits, make businesses hesitant to hire women and exacerbate the recession. What they are really saying is that businesses should be allowed to pay women less money for the same job their male counterparts are doing. And that their business models depend on it. That’s it, pure and simple.

If a business refuses to hire women because it doesn’t want to have to pay them the same as men, is that not out-and-out discrimination? And in case anyone thinks I’m just another whining feminist, this new law, which updates the 1964 Civil Rights Act, covers discrimination not only by gender but also by race, national origin, religion, age and disabilities.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long contended that each new instance of discrimination (i.e., each new paycheck that has the lower pay on it) triggers a new 180-day statute of limitations. Obama has incorporated this standard into the new law. This only makes sense, because it could take years before a person discovers the pay others are receiving. It’s not like that information is easy to come by. In our culture, it’s considered bad form to ask people what they make, and many businesses caution their employees to not share this information or they will be fired.

The Supreme Court’s ruling was wrong on two counts: it ignored legal precedent and it upheld discrimination. Let’s hope that it will soon get the message that the new administration holds it to higher standards than did the Bush administration (which has become infamous for undermining the rights of its citizens).

See here and here for more information about this act and its possible consequences.
See here for a pdf copy of the actual act.