Last Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked -- for the third time -- the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill proposing to close the pay gap between men and women. The goal of the bill -- the attainment of equal pay for equal work -- seems like a no-brainer, right? Women with the same job, and same qualifications, as men deserve to be paid the same. They do not deserve to be discriminated against in salary on the basis of gender. Seems obvious. And yet not a single Republican voted in favor of the Act, and many Americans no longer know what to think, either.
The problem is that the message has been greatly muddled, twisted, and usurped, mostly for political gain. Equal Pay has become less a noble, unquestionable goal than a political talking point. Democrats argue that wage disparities persist, pulling out the oft-cited figure that women, on average, earn 77 percent to a man's dollar. They accuse Republicans of failing the bill in favor of "more important" political agendas.
Republicans say the bill is simply a Democratic ploy to distract from the disappointment of Obamacare; that it's been against the law to pay a woman less than a man with similar experience in the same job since the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Paycheck Fairness, they say, would make it impossible for employers to tie compensation to work quality, productivity, and experience. Lawsuits would increase. And, well, look, they point out: Even women in the Obama White House earn 88 percent of their male counterparts, according to study conducted by the American Enterprise Institute.
It's undeniable that women are losing ground. A study released earlier this week from the Pew Research Center reported that after decades of decline, more mothers -- nearly 30 percent -- are staying at home to raise children, a 6 percent increase since 1999. But these aren't quite the women we often think of as stay-at-home moms, the ones choosing to rebel against the Sandberg manifesto and "opt out," or who can rely on well-paid husbands to foot the bills. The women represented in the increase are younger, less likely to be white, more likely to be foreign-born, and less likely to be college educated. They're staying at home in increasing numbers not by choice, but because they can't find work -- or the work they find isn't well compensated enough to cover the necessary childcare. Perpetuating the cycle is the fact that, as Pew also reports, women are more likely to experience family related "career disruptions." They fall behind when they take time out to raise kids. They return to the workplace at a disadvantage.
Whether women earn 77 cents to the male dollar, as the Obama administration sticks to, or the figure is closer to Pew's findings of 84 cents for most women and as high as 93 cents for younger women, it's clear that the playing field is not equal. It's also clear that disparities are indeed related to gender. Recent cases have shown that women who ask for pay increases often don't get them. What they get instead: negative reactions. A 2007 study found that women who asked for raises were perceived as demanding. Men, meanwhile, faced no backlash. Even Republicans concede that gender discrimination is no myth, and have offered an amendment to the Paycheck Fairness Act that would address the opportunity gap and prevent employers from retaliating against workers who share salary information.
Which means that both parties want the same thing. So what's the problem? The problem, of course, is politics. And unfortunately nothing will happen until Democrats and Republicans agree to make Equal Pay a fairness issue rather than a political one. In the meantime, it's women who suffer.
This first appeared on Forbes.com