A common refrain from Democrats – particularly in a presidential election year – is to claim that Republicans oppose equal rights for women. Examples tend to include opposition to federal funding of Planned Parenthood and abortion, accessibility to free or subsidized contraception, and voting against equal pay for women. This last one, in particular, is a trumped up lie worthy of rebuttal.
The accusation that Republicans oppose equal pay for women stems from a bill entitled Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. Since Republicans opposed the bill, Democrats naturally claim that Republicans oppose fair pay. After all, the bill was called the “fair pay” act, so if Republicans vote against it, they must oppose fair pay, right? As all informed Americans know, the name of a bill rarely has much to do with the actual content of a bill (see Patriot Act).
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
One might be forgiven for thinking a new “fair pay” act isn’t really needed in the U.S. After all, the Equal Pay Act was signed into law in 1963, followed closely by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on gender. But Barack Obama thought a new law was required and made the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act the first bill he signed into law after becoming president.
The Ledbetter Act amends the Civil Rights Act to change the 180 day statute of limitations for equal pay lawsuits so that it resets with each new paycheck. Prior to Ledbetter, a plaintiff had 180 days to file a lawsuit from the date of the discriminatory act. Now, employees can wait an almost indefinite period of time before filing a lawsuit against a company, even if the managers responsible for the criminal act are no longer with the organization.
Republicans opposed the Ledbetter Act for two reasons. First, it opens the door to frivolous lawsuits and undermines the purpose of establishing a statute of limitation. Second, Republicans believed that existing law was sufficient and there was no pressing need to expand the Civil Rights Act. Let’s explore that second point to understand if there is a pressing issue over fair pay for women.
Pay Disparities Between Men and Women
If you accept the premise that women are paid less than men as a result of gender discrimination, then the Lilly Ledbetter Act makes a lot of sense, but there is significant evidence that this is a false premise. The most common statistic cited is that women are paid $0.77 for every dollar that a man is paid. This number comes to us from a simple relationship between the median income for men and women, but it fails to account for different jobs, level of responsibility, years of experience and education, or a host of other factors.
A 2010 study from The United States Congress Joint Economic Committee adjusted for these other factors – from men choosing higher paying fields to women voluntarily leaving the workforce to raise children – and found that the $0.23 gap is actually closer to $0.05. Other studies have shown, for example, that two people with no kids and have never married have a gap of only $0.02. Put another way, there is essentially no gender wage gap, and any gap that exists can be explained by market factors and personal choice instead of gender discrimination.
How Conservatives Think About Fair Pay
The conservative perspective on fair pay is driven by two principles: free markets and equal opportunity. Under the principle of equal opportunity, conservatives think women are just as entitled to work for a living as a man and are entitled to the same wage for the same work. There simply is no truth to the charge that conservatives oppose equal rights or equal pay for women.
Free markets are very good at allocating resources and establishing price levels, including the price of labor. There is no free market reason to choose one segment of the workforce and systematically depress its wages. To do so would create a new competitive incentive to hire those workers at the depressed wages, thereby increasing the demand for them and driving up their wages.
Additionally, free markets are very good at determining value, so what is perceived as gender gap is actually an accurate determination of value based on work experience, education, and the desire to work longer hours in high-stress jobs. Studies have demonstrated that men are more likely to enter into high stress jobs and work longer hours than women, and are therefore more likely to earn higher median wages. Women who work in the same jobs, work the long hours, and hold equivalent experience are shown to make similar wages.
A Conservative Fair Pay Policy
From a conservative perspective, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was sufficient to guarantee equal pay for women. As society has progressed and more women have joined the workforce, median wages for women have risen. Frankly, the fact that median wages for women have risen to 77% of the median wage for men is a significant accomplishment, and is evidence that women truly are equal in American society.
The differences that remain – the so-called wage gap – are not a sign of gender discrimination, but a sign of the very real differences between men and women. Women have the right to choose a career or family or both, and those choices reveal themselves in the wage data. Many women continue to choose family over career, which leads to what appears to be a wage gap. But when adjusting the data to reflect equivalent education, experience, and career path, the wage gap disappears.