04/17/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2012

Equal Pay Day: In the Wake of the So-Called "Mommy Wars" Renewal and Partisan Attacks on Equal Pay Bills

Equal Pay Day comes this year in the midst of the renewal of the so-called "mommy wars" on the one hand, and a blatant attack on equal pay rights bills on the other. Last week, Hilary Rosen set off a media maelstrom when she said that Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, "has never actually worked a day in her life." Just a week before (and to much less fanfare), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker repealed Wisconsin's Equal Pay law and one of the state senate Republicans, Glenn Grothman, was quoted as saying, "You could argue that money is more important for men, anyways." Both have serious implications for the equal pay cause.

The National Committee on Pay Equity started Equal Pay Day in 1996 to bring more public attention to the gender wage gap, the difference between what an average full-time, year-round, male worker earned and what the average full-time, year-round, female worker earned. In 1996, the difference was 73.8 cents to the dollar and, today, the difference is about 77.4 cents. Not a terribly huge improvement over the last 16 years.

Researchers have long noted that a number of factors can partially explain the gender wage gap. Notably, women and men tend to work in different industry sectors and different occupations within industry, which can explain a sizable portion of the gap. But differences in pay for various occupations may be due to whether jobs are associated with women or men. In other words, while occupational differences may explain some of the gender wage gap, the pay scale for different occupations is connected to whether or not the occupations are made up of mostly men or mostly women. And as sociologist Paula England and economist Nancy Folbre found in their research, women are more likely to work in caring fields, which offer relatively poor pay given the skill and education necessary for much of this work.

Devaluing the hard work of acting as a primary caregiver of children not only dismisses the unpaid labor done in the home, it also contributes to the struggle of the millions of paid female laborers who work in caring fields and find that their work is neither recognized nor justly rewarded. Calling this past week's maelstrom a renewal of the "mommy wars" dodges the real issue: Caregiving, whether done unpaid in the home or for pay outside of it, is not particularly valued in this country and women (whether in the labor market or not) suffer the brunt of this.

Differences in pay are likely also connected to bias. Having children often increases men's wages, according to research from sociologist Rebecca Glauber, but it often decreases women's wages and women working in low-wage jobs face the toughest wage penalties for motherhood, as sociologists Michelle Budig and Melissa Hodges found. When Grothman argued, "Money is more important for men," he may have been tapping a generally unspoken belief -- that a woman's salary is less necessary to her family than is her spouse's. But, these beliefs are a remnant of times gone by in which men were primary breadwinners and women were primary homemakers (although as historian Stephanie Coontz has noted, even during the 1950s, this gender divide was never as big a phenomenon as we remember it to be).

Today, only 20 percent of children are raised in families with a traditional breadwinning father and stay-at-home mother. Most children, then, live in families that depend on the wages of women, and one-third of children live in single-mother households and are most at risk of living in poverty. The National Women's Law Center reports that bridging the gender wage gap would give the average full-time working woman's family the money to pay for an additional 4 months' supply of groceries, 5 months' of childcare, 3 months' rent and utilities, 5 months' health insurance premiums, 4 months' student loan payments, and 5 tanks of gas. Addressing the wage gap would go a long way in increasing women's economic security, as well as the financial security of their families. In 2010, all Senate Republicans voted against considering the Paycheck Fairness Act. As both President Obama and presidential hopeful Governor Romney continue to vie for women's votes, it would be nice to see some serious proposals from the candidates about how to bridge the wage gap.