Brief Thoughts on Equal Pay Day

It’s Equal Pay Day – a day intended to recognize “how far into the new year the average American woman would have to work to earn what the average American man did in the previous year.” Hashtag activism is surging today via #EqualPayDay. Below is a small sample of Tweets – including Tweets from The White House and the U.S. Labor Department – referencing the gap and demanding equality.

As a feminist, I’m absolutely in favour of the sentiment expressed by these Tweets. But as a feminist, I’m also discouraged by the lack of specificity in these demands. To be fair, hashtag activism doesn’t lend itself well to specificity, but I think we can do better than recycling the “for every dollar a man earns, a woman makes 78 cents” tagline. The statistics regarding the gender pay gap are knotty and not easy to interpret, causing many to declare the wage gap a myth, a bogus statistic. Missing from online activism is acknowledgement that there is some truth to this claim.

Research suggests that women tend to make less than men not because of blatant discrimination but for a variety of other, more complex reasons that are still steeped in sexism but are less overt than the “78 cents” statistic suggests. Issues like society’s perception of women as the default caregivers, lack of paid maternity leave, lack of societal support for paternity leave, confidence gaps, male-dominated professional networks, and occupational choices may account for the wage disparity between men and women. As Hanna Rosin said in her 2013 Slate article, “The point here is not that there is no wage inequality. But by focusing our outrage into a tidy, misleading statistic we’ve missed the actual challenges. It would in fact be much simpler if the problem were rank sexism and all you had to do was enlighten the nation’s bosses or throw the Equal Pay Act at them.”

Which is why I wish #EqualPayDay conversation did more than emphasize the inherent unfairness of pay inequity and instead emphasized the specific changes that are needed to close the gap. It’s easy to talk about the injustice of the wage gap, it’s much tougher to figure out why it persists and take action to change it.

Earlier I Tweeted this:

My point is not to deny that sexism plays a role in the gender pay gap because it does. My point is that we must uncover the particular sexist mechanisms that are causing wage disparity and actively dismantle them. As a starting point, I would love to see #EqualPayDay activists demand not just pay equity but paid maternity leave, support for paternity leave, professional networks for women, or whatever specific proposal they believe to be most valuable. Then the arduous task of turning conversation to action must begin.