07/17/2012 06:31 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2012

The Masculinity Police Perpetuates Gender Pay Gap

Written in association with The OpEd Project

On the first day of first grade, Kirk was excited to go to school. The day before class started, Kirk and his mother had gone to shop for a lunch box. They had fun walking up and down the aisle looking at and considering all of the brightly colored lunch boxes with a multitude of fun characters painted on them. They finally selected a super cool lunch box that Kirk took to school the next day. When Kirk came home after school, he was in tears. He raced to the garage, threw his lunch box in the trash can, and screamed, "Get it away from me! I hate it!" It turned out that the character on the lunch box was female. Kirk had not known. Neither had his mother.

From that first day of school, Kirk was tortured every single day. Other boys would stand nearby and cough, as they barked out the word "fag." Kirk was frequently and openly called names intended to hurt: "gay," "queer," "homo." He was told he was a "girl." By the time Kirk entered middle school, other boys would push and trip him as he walked down the hallways. In the locker room, his genitals had been grabbed. By now, he hated school and was afraid to go.

Calling a boy "gay," when intended to be insulting, has become a nearly universal means of communicating that he is not perceived to be sufficiently masculine. Calling a boy a "girl" is a shame-filled accusation of inferiority.

In America, we like our boys and men to be tough, dominant, and aggressive. Boys are targeted and ridiculed and humiliated when they show any trace of femininity. Some boys who are shamed by name-calling and bullying will go on to pressure themselves and others to exhibit this hypermasculine code of behavior, becoming members of the masculinity police. Brothers, dads, coaches, friends, and some women too, serve as the masculinity police to keep boys in line.

The political and economic impact of hypermasculinity were on full display last month, when Republicans in the Senate blithely voted down the Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation intended to close the wage gap between women and men for doing the same work. The Paycheck Fairness Act is designed to fight gender discrimination in the workplace by making certain that legal remedies for wage discrimination mirror those for discrimination based on race or national origin. A much-needed update to the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Paycheck Fairness Act is intended to protect women from retaliation by their employers when they inquire about pay inequities and seek equal pay through the court system.

This substantial distance between male financial advantage and female financial disadvantage is held firmly in place by the masculinity police. The existing hypermasculinity code promotes the idea that men are supposed to earn higher wages than women. When women earn pay equal to that of men, many men do not like it. These men feel as if they have actually lost something that they deserve to have, like status, entitlement, or a sense of superiority.

The masculinity police neutralize women by turning women into a joke. Women are dumb blondes. Rape jokes are standard content of comedy. College men make porn screensavers.

The existence of the masculinity police rings true because we have all seen it play out in everyday interactions. These ideas about masculinity are standing in the way of paycheck equity.

Of course, not all men serve as the masculinity police. A prime example of this exception is Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox, who strongly advocates for the role of men in dismantling the hypermasculine code of conduct. And women are not immune from the push to raise boys to be hypermasculine. Many moms and school teachers, the majority of whom are women, routinely instruct boys not to cry and not to be a "sissy." The message that boys are not to be feminine is loud and clear.

The masculinity police push women away from financial equality by engaging in systematic scorn for all that is perceived to be feminine and all this is supported by feminists. Women's efforts to level the economic playing field are discounted and dismissed. To maintain the perceived superiority of masculinity over femininity, the masculinity police work tirelessly to keep the substantial wage gap in place.

It is a sad day every day that women earn less money than men. Women earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men in the same position. The pay gap is even worse for women of color, with African American women earning 67.7 cents and Latinas earning 58.7 cents for every dollar earned by men doing the same work. Unprecedented numbers of women are the sole or primary breadwinners in their homes. Equal pay means that mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters will be better off financially, offering more long-term financial stability for their fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers. When women earn better wages, more money is spent in the economy. Every single American man, woman, and child has a vested interest in paycheck equality. Pay equity is good news for all of us.

Equal pay for equal work is based in the most dearly held American value: a fair shot for everyone. And, it's also based in a value that's less lofty, but just as important: plain old common sense. To achieve paycheck parity, women and men will need to vote for legislators who support equal pay.

The wage gap is a problem every single day, not just on the days that the issue makes the headlines. Right now, we talk about the wage gap on Equal Pay Day in April, and when Congress votes on the issue of pay fairness. Right now, as you read this, women are being paid less than men for doing the same work. Right now, families have less food on their tables because of the masculinity police.