04/17/2014 03:46 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Equal Pay for Equal Work: A Response to Phyllis Schlafly


While not necessarily carried out in practice, equal pay for equal work has been law in the United States since the 1960s. Phyllis Schlafly, a major opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and the founder of the "pro-family" organization, the Eagle Forum, suggested in her recent op-ed that the gender pay gap is necessary due to biology and the marriage market. Schlafly's suggestion that women should make less than their male counterparts demonstrates not only that she is still living in the 1950s, but completely out of touch with the demographic and social realities facing American women and families.

To Schlafly, the pay gap is necessary to fulfill men's and women's preferences for a marriage partner. Women and men, according to Schlafly, both prefer that the male partner makes more money. While Schlafly does recognize that women may forego and delay marriage if they do not find a suitable partner, some women may be choosing to marry a spouse who may not necessarily fulfill their dreams of the traditional male breadwinner. According to a 2012 Pew study, 21 percent of women are married to less educated spouses and 40 percent of those women earn more money than their male partners. If education is a proxy for potential earnings, Schlafly's theory may not necessarily hold completely because women who marry less educated partners are theoretically selecting a partner who earns or will earn less in the future.

The economic foundations of marriage are also shifting. As a result of major changes in the economy, dual income families have become the norm. Men and women are now evaluated on their earning potential by prospective partners. Men are seeking wives who not only can perform in the bedroom but in the boardroom as well. My research also suggests that men actively seek out partners who can contribute to the family's financial reserve.

Schlafly's suggestion that the pay gap should exist furthers social inequality. According to Schlafly, women should earn less because they bear children and therefore are less likely to be committed to the labor force. While Schlafly is correct that men are not able to give birth, Schlafly does not understand variation in pay and labor force participation among women. Schlafly fails to address that the most highly educated and paid women have the greatest degree of flexibility and ability to exit the labor force unlike their less well educated counterparts.

Maintaining the pay gap also increases inequality for America's most vulnerable families. Less educated, and by extension less well paid, women are less likely to be married generally. By increasing the pay gap, economically vulnerable women may not have the means to support themselves or their children and do not have a husband to rely on whom they can rely. Given recent data indicating that women are the primary or sole breadwinner in 40 percent of American households with children under age 18, Schlafly's suggestions are particularly irresponsible. Schlafly also does not address divorced mothers who cannot rely on a husband for economic support.

Women's labor force participation preferences are also misrepresented in Schlafly's op-ed. Schlafly is correct that some women may opt out of the labor force or opt into jobs that provide more flexibility for personal reasons. Her op-ed, however, does not address that, 32 percent of mothers claim that their ideal employment status would be full time employment. Moreover, Schlafly fails to address existing research by sociologists and economists indicating that even after controlling for demographic, human capital, and labor force characteristics, a considerable gap in pay persists. In case you did not read the sociological and economic literature, Mrs.Schlafly, the gap is often attributed to gender discrimination.

Schlafly's message is not only unpopular and backwards, but dangerous. Let's leave the 1950s and enter the 21st century. Equal pay for equal work!