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Women and the Un-Equal Pay Act

While accepting her Oscar for “Boyhood” earlier this year, “CSI Cyber” star Patricia Arquette implored the Academy audience to support wage equality for women. It was one of the few times I can recall a “political” speech being met with unanimous acceptance during an awards ceremony. More than that, Arquette’s diatribe in effect jump-started a renewed interest in the pay disparity debate.

A few weeks later in recognition of National Equal Pay Day, comedienne Sarah Silverman asked women to join the #Ask4More campaign. According to Glamour magazine, her urging was related to a LEVO study which showed that 63% of women felt uncomfortable negotiating for a job offer, and 66% said they didn’t know how to ask for more money.

It is both sad and amazing that in the year 2015, women still make only 78 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Here in North Carolina the pay disparity is actually a bit better than the national average. Back in March, a new study showed that Tarheel women are paid 83 cents of what men earn for the same job. The really bad news, though, is that the study concluded that women in North Carolina won’t achieve equal pay status until the year 2064!

Over the past few weeks, working women and their advocates have railed against pay disparity, and pulled out the so-called Equal Pay Act like some sort of mighty sword. But that sword has lost its edge, and the problem with effecting reforms is threefold. First, when EPA was enacted, it didn’t apply to all working women. Second, it established very strict guidelines for redress.

And third, it did nothing to help break or weaken the glass ceiling.

To the first point, President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, at a time when women earned only 59 cents for every dollar paid to a man for the same job. But the Act itself only applied to hourly workers in bluecollar jobs. It wasn’t until 1972 that it was amended to cover pay disparity in white-collar jobs. In 2009, President Obama signed into law the Fair Pay Act (FPA), ostensibly because EPA lacked effective tools to persuade or punish offending employers.

But while the two Acts were necessary, they have proven to be largely ineffective, otherwise we would have achieved wage equality by now.

Second, EPA mainly protected women against pay disparity related specifically to sex discrimination. As Nolo.com reminds us, the way EPA was structured, a woman with a grievance had an uphill battle when seeking redress. That’s because to raise a discrimination claim, you must demonstrate that you and someone of the opposite sex are working in the same place, are doing equal work, and that you are receiving unequal pay because you’re a woman. But as Nolo points out, there’s not always agreement on what constitutes equal work. At some job sites, for example, a male employee might be asked to do extra work, and then receives extra compensation for that work. If his female counterpart isn’t asked to also do extra work, then she receives less pay, even though their job descriptions are identical. Also, if that same male has been evaluated as having demonstrated higher productivity than the female, then he might earn a slightly higher salary than she.

Finally, neither EPA nor FPA have made it any easier or more lucrative for companies to put women in executive jobs. According to Thinkprogress.org, there are only 48 female CEOs heading up the 1,000 largest corporations in America. That means women hold only 4.8% of the top jobs. Until that figure is much higher, then rank and file female employees stand little chance of earning the same pay as men.

True, there are a few jobs in which women make more money than men. AOL and CareerBuilder.com report that a female TV producer/director earns on average $4,000 more than a man, while women teaching special education, and female TSA screeners, are paid about $1,000 more than their male counterparts. But those examples are few and far between. So too are instances of female executives who earn more than their fellow male executives. Apple Vice President Angela Ahrendts is the exception, earning over $82 million dollars per year. Nevertheless, pay disparity between the sexes is still a pervasive problem which is not easily corrected or litigated. It’s going to take more than a speech at the Academy Awards to make a course correction. It’s going to take laws without loopholes, and male dominated corporate boards to be less misogynistic and more proactive.

I am reminded of those “pregnancy suits” that high school boys wear in Sex Ed class to let them experience what women go through when having a baby. Perhaps if male lawmakers and male CEOs were made to wear a “Disparity Suit” for awhile, they’d learn what it’s like to earn less money, and then we might not have to wait until 2064 for pay equality. Heck, we might not even have to wait until the end of the week. That’s because men have a low threshold for under compensated “labor” pains. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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