The conversation about equal pay tends to resurface once every four years, not-so-coincidentally during the same cycle as the Women’s World Cup tournament. But, as with most trending news stories, the pressure on policymakers to do something about pay inequity is fleeting, and shortly after the games are over, people go back to their daily lives where American women earn an estimated 15 cents less than their male counterparts.
The U.S. Women’s National Team has a class-action lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation, Inc. for the violation of both the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in failing to promote and protect gender equality through equal pay for equal performance. These are two of the most powerful policies currently on the books to protect women from pay discrimination, yet there still exists a clear and quantifiable wage gap between women and men. The lawsuit brought on by these world champion women is a high-profile example of the wage gap between men and women in the U.S., but these women are not the exception, but the rule in norms of wage discrimination. Because of occupational segregation – when one demographic group is over or underrepresented among different employment industries – which is a high-brow way of saying jobs mostly held by women are valued less than jobs mostly held by men, women still earn less than men, and women of color are particularly affected, earning less than white women and men.
Let’s take a look at some of the laws policymakers have created to correct the wage gap in the U.S. The Equal Pay Act is administered and enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and prohibits pay discrimination between women and men who perform “substantially” equal work. However, the Act places the burden of proof on women to demonstrate they are performing substantially equal work as their male coworkers yet receive unequal pay, which is discouragingly difficult to prove in court because of potential bona fide occupational qualifications, or legal loopholes employers can exploit to lawfully discriminate against a specific demographic group. Similarly, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires plaintiffs to prove discriminatory intent, which means women must have tangible evidence that the reason they are earning less than men is because of their gender; again, a goliath of an accusation to prove in court. House Resolution 7, known commonly as the Paycheck Fairness Act, is the most recent bipartisan bill intended to promote pay parity between men and women in the workplace. The bill places more responsibility on employers to prove that any differential pay between male and female employees is not based on sex. The nonretaliation provision protects employees from backlash from their employer for filing a complaint under the Equal Pay Act. The bill also outlines outreach goals to girls and women training them on negotiating their salaries. These three components work together to produce a bill that should fill some of the gaps in current wage discrimination policies. The bill has passed in the House and now is being considered in the Senate, but unless it actually becomes law, it won’t have any enforcement power for women.
In theory, these laws should eradicate all instances of gender discrimination in wages, so why are women still up in arms about the wage gap? All of these laws have something in common that no amount of legal jargon can fully erase: there are powerful pay-secrecy norms that continue to drive the gender wage gap. Many companies utilize either formal or informal pay-secrecy policies that prohibit employees from sharing how much they make with their coworkers. Pay-secrecy isn’t usually brought up in the debate about the wage gap because it is so ingrained in our work culture to not question or vocalize how much we make in comparison with our coworkers. Refraining from discussion of salary with peers is as embedded into the American culture as celebrating a world-championship sports victory with the stars and stripes. It is markedly taboo to share one’s salary with a fellow employee, but this is one of the most direct methods an employee can learn if they are being discriminated against based on their sex. If women don’t know if there is a discrepancy, then they can’t file a lawsuit with the EEOC, and employers exploit the current social norms to keep their workers in the dark.
One of the reasons the wage gap debate is so closely associated with the U.S. Women’s National Team is because base salaries, bonuses, and gate revenues can all be found online — so there isn’t the usual issue of pay-secrecy norms clouding the public’s vision of
how much each team makes. Because the women’s soccer team knows the unfiltered truth about how much their male counterparts earn (for the sake of the argument) per comparable performance, they are now able to pursue legal action to remedy the discrepancy. Women in the workforce should feel inspired by these world champions to shed light on pay-secrecy norms that are lurking in so many places of employment. It should not take the eyes of the world upon us to correct a national practice of pay discrimination. Current and future wage-gap policies can only go so far in changing society’s steadfast traditions, so we need changemakers to get the ball rolling on making tangible change for all American women.
Featured Image Source: Sports Illustrated.