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The Fight for Equal Pay in the Land of Opportunity

The Fight for Equal Pay in the Land of Opportunity

Every year, a myriad of migrants make their way to America and cross its borders in search of their own Dream, enshrining our nation as the land of opportunity. The truth, however, is that America has failed to live up to its democratic standards, using a fake mask of patriotism in the hopes of hiding the real inequities that persist today. 

Whether it was during the fight for suffrage or the current ongoing fight for equal pay, women are constantly reminded of their second-class status. It’s not hard to decipher the root cause of these vestigial prejudices. In Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, he espoused that at the time, voting requirements existed to exclude “persons [that] are in no means [or] situation [such] that they are esteemed to have no will of their own.” Though written in 1765, his subversive words have rung true time and time again. In fact, many women did not enter the workforce, let alone gain the right to suffrage, until the outbreak of World War II. While the men were away at battle, the women were left to tend to both of their households and family businesses. As a result, the rate of female employment rapidly proliferated, and by 1960, 23.3 million women made up over thirty-two percent of the American labor force.

In spite of the unprecedented rise in female employment, the struggle for equality has not not ended. Since a capitalist society is rooted in power and monetary gain, men found themselves threatened by the sudden female success, facing the risks of job insecurity as a so-called “inferior” woman could replace them at any time. To paraphrase sociology Professors Barbara F. Reskin and Denise D. Bielby of the University of Washington and University of California Santa Barbara in the 2005 Issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, sex is a means of social differentiation. Society through its principles then further perpetuates such differences, eventually leading to a severe systemic inequality based on group membership and the social stratification of “their members across virtually all domains.” This subtle sexism stemming from gender stereotypes and unconscious biases among male employers and employees alike leads to the unequal treatment of women, ultimately benefiting men. 

The labels placed on a masculine or feminine job further segregates the labor force. In a 2012 Pew Research Study, when asked what is best for young children, only 16 percent of respondents agreed that having a mother who works full time is the most ideal, and 33 percent said that a mother of young children should not work at all. With this perspective, it is increasingly difficult for women to advance in the workplace as employers tend to prefer men--because they will not, for example, take a 12-week-long maternity leave--despite women’s equal working capability. Patriarchy and its pious devotees will do anything to maintain the status quo; the insidious nature of entrenched gender norms in the professional sphere continue to underpin the constant discrimination faced by women today. 

In light of the recent U.S. Women's National Team’s victory at the 2019 World Cup, unparalleled chants for equal pay have reignited. The women’s team worked tirelessly and brought much pride to our country but were not even rewarded with equal--or more than equal--pay based on their merit. As they say, history repeats itself. This phenomenon of unequal pay is nothing new as revealed by the discriminatory treatment endured by women soccer players back in 2015, after their defeat over Japan in the World Cup. A post-cup analysis from a 2016 FiveThirtyEight study of U.S. soccer players Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd’s salaries uncovered a gross total income of $480,038 in contrast to male players Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard’s total of $826,517. That amounts to an astounding difference of $364,479, even with the men's team's poor finish at the CONCACAF Gold Cup that year.

The female soccer players saved the dying American morale and brought much revenue with their undeniable excellence and victories, especially in juxtaposition with the men’s dismal and disheartening performances, and yet the women still faced unequal treatment. Although the Women’s Soccer team filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the outcome was meaningless: a simple formal apology and the Federation’s promise to bargain for better pay and the improvement of employment opportunities for women in the field. A promise that is yet to be fulfilled.

Women are being paid unfairly all across the board—not just in sports. According to data compiled by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in 2017, though American women make up almost half of the workforce, they only received 80.5 cents for each dollar made by men, creating an unsettling wage gap of 20 percent. While this may not seem to be a very significant figure, it seems blasphemous that the land of opportunity is ridden with such inequities. Women are paid less than men for the same work or even when they accomplish more, as seen with the scenario of the United States (U.S.) Women's National Soccer Team. For women of color, the reality is worse: Latinas make 53 percent, African Americans make 61 percent, and Native Americans make 58 percent of their male counterparts’ salaries with Asian women being the only outliers earning 85 percent (but only 75.5 percent of Asian men’s earnings). 

But, is unequal pay legal? To put it simply: no. Section 206 (d)(1) from the Equal Pay Act of 1963 clearly states:

 No employer having employees subject to any provisions of this section shall discriminate…on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 serves to embolden these ideals by legislating protection against discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Unfortunately, employers have found a loophole, constantly exploiting both the vagueness of the bill due to its lack of exploration through court cases and its lack of enforcement. For instance, the administrative interpretations of the EPA have defined skill as "experience, training, education, and ability" needed, effort as "the measurement of the physical or mental exertion needed for the performance of a job," and responsibility as "the degree of accountability required in the performance of the job, with emphasis on the importance of the job obligation." Wages have been interpreted to mean "all payments made to or on behalf of the employee as remuneration for employment," including most fringe benefits. Yet, the fact remains that these interpretations are simply words with no means of enforcement. Additionally, one cannot overlook the gray areas within the text itself--what “experience” and “effort” truly mean remains unclear as there is no objective test to determine the levels of each, ultimately leaving its discretion up to the employer.

Moreover, a man or a woman, who feels he or she have been subjected to equal pay discrimination, may sue his or her employer. However, our American justice system idolizes the presumption of innocence, or that one is “innocent until proven guilty.” While due process of law is necessary to maintain equal standards and to uphold our laws, it is often laborious and sometimes impossible for the employee or the Secretary of Labor to prove that the plaintiff was indeed performing the same work as a male-counterpart, which again becomes entrapped in the folly of subjectivity. On top of that, while a woman may indeed seek a lawsuit, there will always linger the stigma and fear of retaliation, and the fear of job security often binds women into silence.

That isn’t to say that the Equal Pay Act and subsequent acts have been futile; their impact has gradually narrowed the gender wage gap. However, women literally still pay the price for matters out of their own hands, still bearing the burden of such inequities despite their out-performance of men, something legislators recognize and continue to fight for. According to CNN reporter Caroline Kelly, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin recently introduced a bill that would “withhold federal funding for the hosting of the 2026 men's World Cup until the men's and reigning champion women's national soccer teams receive equal pay.” Even just this year, the House in a 242-187 vote passed the H.R.7. - Paycheck Fairness Act of 2019, which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to remedy discrimination in the payment of wages based on sex, yet the Senate continues to show no further action.

Although it has been proven many times that the gender pay gap exists in every country worldwide, the issue isn’t being taken seriously, partly due to misinterpretations of the data at hand. For example, according to Mark J. Perry of the American Enterprise Institute, the gender pay gap is at best a common misconception with no substantial evidence that men and women working in the same position with the same background receive unequal pay. Rather, a gender earnings gap exists due to many different factors. For example, men are more likely than women to have more years of uninterrupted experience due to women being more apt to take maternity leave or quit their job and relocate for their partners. 

What Perry seems to be suggesting here is that women truly do not deserve equal pay because their work is simply not equal. Again, however, it is important to consider the subjectivity within these observations, starting with the fact that women employees are present in all of the fields he lists as examples. Women have always been discriminated against within the typical household and being dependent on their husbands or fathers further restricts their freedom to pursue higher education, a trend that is beginning to change. In 2015 alone, 72.5 percent of females were enrolled in degree-seeking programs, compared to 65.8 percent of men paralleling similar increases among low-income and women of color. Such increasing opportunities for females in education and the fields of humanities and STEM will only serve to disprove Perry’s point—women are seeking change for themselves.

However, there is no magical antidote. Multiple plans have been discussed, like the one proposed by California Senator Kamala Harris, which would fine companies that fail to disclose their pay data. This is where the real trouble lies: the gender pay gap is a smaller issue in the grand scheme of things, and passing such narrow-scoped legislation simply does not go far enough. Rather, the solution is to reinforce the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment under which all persons are guaranteed the equal protection of the laws, implicitly including the right to equal pay. The first step would be to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Proposed in 1923, this would guarantee equal legal and civil rights for all American citizens regardless of gender. While the ERA has faced much political backlash, it has quietly been regaining support. According to Article V of the Constitution, one of the ways an amendment can be ratified is through the ratification by three-fourths of the states. In February of this year, Virginia became close to fulfilling the required number by becoming the 38th state. But while the amendment passed the Senate, the House vote rendered it moot with a tiebreaker vote. However, women refuse to be discouraged. Organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) are one of many initiatives that continue to advocate for the ratification of the ERA. It will take a coalition of all women, akin to the recent #MeToo movement, for change to occur. This is necessary as it would ensure that when the ERA is ratified one day, its purpose does not become nullified or diluted, it would be properly enforced.

From the beginning, minorities and those in power in the United States have been at odds— the outcries for equal pay among the U.S. Women’s National Team are not the first nor will they be the last. When a significant part of the population is denied equal pay, equal rights, and equal opportunity, the oppressed are not the only ones affected. Rather, the entire basis of democracy is at risk. And that is something all of us equally have a stake in.

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