Why Do We Need Equal Pay Day?

“Women choose to get paid less because they choose to have families. It’s not bias; it’s a choice they make. Actually, it’s feminism. And also, women don’t ask for more money. That explains it.”

This is a real statement said to me by a man I know. Laughable definition of feminism aside, it reveals a fairly common myth about the wage gap: that if only women stopped having babies and taking time off to recover and care for their children, or if only we asked for more money, the world would be a happy, egalitarian place. (See also: the argument that sexual assault can be curbed by dressing more modestly.)  

equal pay day
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Today is April 12, or Equal Pay Day — a national day of awareness for the wage gap between men and women. I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty aware of this gap. And I find myself wondering how the hell we got to 2016 and still need to convince people that there’s a wage gap, and that it’s obvious discrimination.

The wage gap, at present, is about 79 cents to the dollar for women versus men, and it has held steady for the last decade. It gets much worse when you only look at women of color: The American Association of University Women found that Hispanic and Latina women made, on average, 54 percent of what white men made in 2014, for example. Wage inequity is also worse for LGBTQ people, who are paid less and often lack legal recourse to fight back (consider that in 32 states, it’s legal to fire someone for their gender identity, or recent legislation blocking LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws). Pay inequity happens across every occupation and in every state.

What causes the pay gap isn’t women failing to ask for adequate raises or to negotiate, according to a 2016 study in the National Bureau of Economic Research. Nor is it as simple as some HR drone assigning a woman 79 percent of the salary he assigned to a male employee. Make no mistake: It’s bias that keeps women from earning the same amount as men — a sometimes subtle, institutionalized bias that remains firmly entrenched in American society.

According to the NBRE report, the wage gap can be accounted for in part by the types of industries that women work in. There are more men in higher-paying fields, like engineering and tech. This is hardly surprising, given the hostile climate in those fields: Research shows that even when women enter these fields, they’re frequently pushed out by inhospitable work environments, with a lack of opportunity to advance.

"In 2016, we can create vertebrae with 3-D printers. We built a space station almost 20 years ago. But we still can’t figure out how to pay women the same as we pay men."  

Sexism is also to blame. The NBRE report noted that assumptions that women will — or should — spend more time away from the office, make them less likely candidates for promotions or raises (and indeed, women face devastating consequences when they do take time away from work to care for their families). Male managers may also be less likely to promote women because they don’t fit their definition of a “leader,” and women are less likely to have mentorship from senior leaders. Without an ability to rise, women go from typically outearning their male counterparts immediately after college to earning drastically less by their thirties.

I was raised by a feminist mom who did what was essentially revolutionary among her peers: kept her last name, waited to have kids, and insisted on a career of her own. She lamented the pay gap then, when her male peers were offered mentorship and leadership roles by the men who came before them, leaving women without opportunities to advance. How is it that I’m in the same place that she was?

In 2016, we can create vertebrae with 3-D printers. We built a space station almost 20 years ago. But we still can’t figure out how to pay women the same as we pay men. How does the wage gap still exist?

Today, on Equal Pay Day, I can’t help but feel completely mortified that a day of awareness around this matter is still needed. I’m angry and ashamed that we still aren’t paying women adequately, and that women of color face even bigger penalties. But I suppose this day of awareness isn’t for the affected population. It’s for the people who aren’t affected — the people like my friend, who doesn’t understand that the wage gap is a result of discrimination, not of women opting out or being inadequate negotiators.

Maybe I don’t want a day. I want 21 percent more money in my paycheck and policies in place that will correct the gap. I want more female leaders. I want more women — especially women of color — in tech. I want paid family leave. I don’t want to debate female negotiation prowess, or to contribute to a society in which women are the only people penalized for being parents.

I don’t want a day. I want change.

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