“Equal Pay” Mendacity Harms Women

The Democrats made some waves last week with their proposed “Paycheck Fairness” legislation, purportedly designed to ensure that men and women get equal pay for equal work. It was heartening to see this rhetoric mostly fall flat. When the Democrats tried to raise some emotion with the infamous “77 cents” statistic, even mainstream publications called them out for their mendacity.

This old canard complains that women earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn. But as everyone should know by now, it’s a classic example of comparing apples to oranges. Yes, men on average earn more than women. They also, on average, work longer hours. They accept jobs with dangerous conditions that include hazard pay (and are thus far more likely to be killed in work-related accidents). They care less about flexibility and clean work environments. Controlling for all the relevant variables, there is no evidence of a sex-based pay gap in America today.

In the end, the American Enterprise Institute won the day by sending the White House scrambling to explain why their own female staffers earned only 88 cents on the dollar as compared to male staffers. It was certainly entertaining to see White House spokesman Jay Carney stammering to explain that, in fact, there are quite a number of variables that go into these wage-gap statistics, so we shouldn’t just take them at face value. You don’t say.

Over at Ricochet.com, these events provoked a fascinating discussion on a topic that should really get more attention: the Democrats’ war on married women. It’s well known by now that Democrats have good electoral reasons to want women to stay single. Single women tend to be more liberal than their married counterparts on almost every issue, and they are far more likely to vote Democratic. Some of this no doubt reflects selection bias; conservatively inclined women are more likely to marry. But it also probably reflects the fact that marriage makes women more sympathetic to conservative talking points (lower taxes, less governmental interference) and less sympathetic to liberal ones. There may be some truth in the “Daddy Government” theory, which stipulates that single women reflexively favor a larger state because they want government to play the protective role in their lives that isn’t being filled by actual men. Whatever the reason, it does seem that women move to the right politically once they are married.

Democrats are desperate to get single women to the polls this November. They know that a strong turnout from that demographic may be their only hope for preventing the Republicans from recapturing the Senate. That is why they are pandering to single women with “equal pay” legislation, and in the coming months we should expect to hear more pandering in the form of empty talk about free day care, universal pre-school and further affirmative action-type measures.

No one should be fooled, however, into supposing that these measures are really good for women. “Equal Pay” legislation typically employs two strategies. First, it makes it easier for women to sue employers if they believe they are underpaid. (This was the focus of the “Lily Ledbetter” act that the Democrats passed five years ago.) Second, it adds levels of oversight, requiring employers to cut through more red tape in order to prove that they aren’t disadvantaging female employees.

Men might very reasonably complain that they are unfairly disadvantaged by these efforts. But even women, the purported beneficiaries, are potentially hurt by this type of legislation. “Equal pay” laws hurt women in one very obvious way: they give employers good reason to avoid hiring them in the first place. What good employer wants employees who are in a particularly good position to sue if they’re dissatisfied with their compensation? Other variables being equal, it will of course always be preferable to hire people who are not so empowered, which is to say, men. Bureaucratic oversight is similarly irksome to companies, even if they never get flagged as “offenders” of the act. Once again, “protecting” employed women with this type of legislation is likely to hurt employment prospects for those who are looking for work.

The biggest losers of these efforts are women who want flexible or non-constant work arrangements. Most of the time that will mean married women and especially mothers.

Behind the “equal pay” conversation lies a highly problematic assumption: that there is no good reason why women and men should not be earning the same paychecks. But this is false. There are good reasons, of a sort that needn’t reflect badly on women, or on men, or on employers. Often women want different things from the workplace than their male counterparts, particularly if they are raising families.

Statistics show that a majority of women prefer not to work full time while raising children. Mothers who make professional sacrifices for their families also tend to be happier with their lives overall. It would seem that “leaning out” can be a good thing for women, and it should go without saying that more maternal attention can be advantageous for kids. Married women should be asking why those decisions to value family over work are not respected by Democratic politicians, who regularly imply that smaller paychecks must make them either failures or victims of unjust discrimination.

This isn’t just a matter of principle, however. For women who want to forego work entirely, the idea that some people don’t respect them is old news by now. But most mothers do still want some level of workplace involvement (either through part-time work or a late career). Given how long people live nowadays, it’s perfectly reasonable for women to aspire to that in a way that still respects the demands of family life. But Democratic “equal pay” legislation is likely to make it more difficult (and perhaps much more difficult) for women to navigate these conflicting demands with grace.

When we focus our energies on punitive measures directed against employers who purportedly don’t give “equal pay for equal time,” we also give employers strong motivation to hiring or promoting women given a plausible excuse. When mothers ask for flexible work arrangements, or leave work through what are normally the most critical “promotional years,” it’s easy for employers to justify looking elsewhere. But many of these women could no doubt make excellent employees if their family sacrifices were more widely respected, and if Democrats did not make the terrain rougher by gratuitously infusing their polarizing gender politics into the American workplace.

Most mothers today accept that we can’t “have it all,” and that the effort is likely to take a negative toll on ourselves and our families. Children need enormous amounts of care and attention; providing that generally means making professional sacrifices. Given the enormous social importance of raising children, however, it seems reasonable to ask that our politicians not make the trade-offs more stark than they need to be. Democrats should be called to account for their assault on the interests of married women.


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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