April isn't known for much besides taxes, but there's at least one other date you should mark on your calendar. April 9 is "Equal Pay Day," and as the National Committee on Pay Equity explains here, the date roughly corresponds to how far into the new year women would need to work in order to earn the same amount of money men made in the preceding year. Although the date doesn't tend to attract much national attention, it has been an annual tradition since 1996 that inspires a good deal of local activism and, if nothing else, is a good opportunity to take stock of where women in the workforce currently stand.
To say that pay equity is a contentious issue would be an understatement. On the face of it, though, the controversy is a bit perplexing; protection against gender-based wage discrimination has at least in theory been on the books since the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and surely the number of people today who would flat-out denies the principle of "equal pay for equal work" is miniscule. And given that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 significantly expanded the conditions under which an employer can be sued for wage discrimination, it is somewhat surprising that pay equity continues to be a problem at all.
The issue, however, is more complex than it appears at first glance. Skeptics often suggest that the wage gap is not the result of gender discrimination per se but rather the different choices men and women tend to make in terms of career paths or perhaps a difference in the number of hours spent working. Less civilly, some claim that equal pay activists are secret proponents of "Marxist social engineering," while others suggest that "men have higher levels of energizing testosterone" that propel them to the top, whereas women "statistically speaking, care less about jobs and status" and "have higher levels of hormones that debilitate them every month."
These are less-than-constructive responses to a multi-faceted problem that needs to be taken seriously. As the TIME article above rather blithely notes, "one could argue that those fields are low-paying because they've traditionally been occupied by women who were denied other career paths and were therefore devalued by society and in economic terms."
One could indeed argue that, but Ruth Davis Konigsberg is apparently not the person who's going to do it, since she goes on to claim, "if we truly wanted to narrow the pay gap, women need to enter more lucrative fields." This, despite the fact that the fields she mentions — teaching, nursing, and social work — are absolutely essential to a functioning society and deserve better compensation on that grounds alone. Not to mention the fact that several of the most common jobs held by women (secretary, cashier) are probably not jobs women are "choosing" as much as they are jobs that they are resorting to or settling for. To quote The Office’s Pam Beesly, "I don't think it's many little girls' dream to be a receptionist."
Or consider the question of how many hours women work in comparison to men. One can imagine many directions a productive discussion of this issue could take — questions of gender roles and parenting, access to affordable childcare, and the general devaluation of traditionally female household work, to name a few. One thing that isn't helpful? Simply saying "it is also pointless for women to keep moaning about the fact that employers are reluctant to give them special consideration when they have children."
To top it all off, however, the notion that the wage gap can be entirely explained in terms of secondary causes like career choice, motherhood, etc. has recently been debunked. A 2012 study found that, even controlling for things like choice of major and marital status, women still earned roughly 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. For minority women, the disparity is even greater. That these inequalities persist in 2013 is both shocking and saddening. This Equal Pay Day, let's hope for a candid and thoughtful discussion of what we can do to address them.