Janine Jackson interviewed Deborah Vagins about the gender pay gap for the April 12, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Designating April 2 the day when US women’s salary “catches up” to men’s of the previous year, is a device, of course, a way to illustrate the gap that persists between what women and men are paid. Equal Pay Day is not, as The Root’s Maiysha Kai put it, a day to celebrate, but to educate, coordinate and advocate. Media can help or hinder that effort, and they do some of both.
We’re joined now by Deborah Vagins, senior vice president for public policy and research at the American Association of University Women. She joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Deborah Vagins.
Deborah Vagins: It’s a pleasure to be back.
JJ: Before we talk about misunderstandings, let’s get some understanding. What are, for you, the salient numbers or data points that illustrate the scope and the scale of the pay gap problem?
DV: Absolutely. So the latest numbers from the US Census Bureau once again reveal that women working full-time, year-round, are typically paid only 80 cents for every dollar paid to men. This is an average overall, looking at all jobs. And African-American women and Latinas make, respectively, 61 and 63 cents on the dollar, as compared to non-Hispanic white men.
JJ: So, yeah, that intersectional breakout is important. The numbers can get glommed together, but when you factor in race, you get a whole other level of the issue, right?
DV: Right. It’s particularly bleak for women of color. I’ll note that when President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, the overall wage gap for all women was 59 cents on the dollar, and today, in 2018—this is from data from last year—Latinas make 53 cents on the dollar, 55 years later.
JJ: Wow. CNN ran a column from a right-wing pundit, which, you know, it would be one thing if people argued, “I don’t think women should be able to be economically independent, because that undermines the familial and societal structure that I think is best.” But they don’t say that. Instead, they say, as this piece on CNN’s website did, the pay gap is not just a lie, but it’s a mean lie that hurts women. This piece checks the familiar boxes: Women just prioritize family over the workplace, we just gravitate to lower-paying work.
But I was especially tickled by what’s clearly intended as a slam dunk. It says, “The truth is that wage discrimination is illegal.” As if nominally illegal things don’t happen all day long. Can you talk about some of the persistent misunderstandings around the gender pay gap? And are we seeing them maybe loosen their hold, a little bit?
DV: Wow. So there’s a lot. I haven’t seen that article, but there’s certainly a lot to unpack in just the little snippet that you read. Very, very troubling.
If I had to make a generalization about people who perpetuate erroneous myths about the pay gap, it’s they never have any real data. So they talk about women dropping out of the workforce, and that’s what causes the wage gap. Well, we’ve looked at something called the motherhood penalty, and that is, employers make assumptions about women, that somehow because they could be mothers, that they have less commitment to the job, or that they will drop out. And we see that women are paid less because of these assumptions, not necessarily because they are actually doing any of the things that employers make assumptions about.
So for example, I gave you some numbers at the opening, [and] we know that working moms make 71 cents on the dollar, as compared to working fathers. And we also, through research, have seen that men receive a fatherhood bonus—that is, when they become parents, they actually make more money.
I mean, that’s just one of them. Our research shows that even when controlling for factors known to affect earnings—such as education or training, marital status, college education—women still earn 7 percent less than men just one year out of college, so meaning, before these purported life choices take hold. And the other research we’ve seen is that women take home less money than they’ve rightfully earned in virtually every industry, no matter what they do, no matter how much education they have, or where they are from in the country.
JJ: Even some of the ostensibly sympathetic stories have, first of all, that lack of data that you’re talking about; they are just kind of impressionistic, and say things like—and I’m not remembering where I saw this, but—women should “get intentional about what you want.” We’re so invested in the idea of fairness that we think that the cause of inequities has got to be at the individual level. But I understand that the AAUW has done some polling that says that, actually, folks are letting go of the idea that it’s just women’s life choices; folks can actually grasp the idea of systemic bias.
DV: I think that’s right. There’s been a lot of work and a lot of effort and a lot of data that have been put into this movement. I mean, the polling data backs it up. Basically, nobody chooses to make less money for the same job. Nobody wants to be relegated to a lower-paying subspecialty, or put in a female-dominated occupation, and to make less because of that. What we’ve seen is that there is stigma—still—about the value of women’s work, and that when women enter fields, the pay actually goes down, meaning that when men occupy a field, it’s actually paid more. One of the stark factoids I like to say is, “We actually pay men watching cars more than we pay women watching children in America.” And that’s because of the value of women’s work, unfortunately.
JJ: And it sort of leads toward another point that argues, of course, for rectifying it, which is the linchpin nature of women, in that raising women’s pay is going to have a ripple effect on families and on communities, wouldn’t it?
DV: That’s right. There are all different types of arguments we hope will appeal to people who may be opponents, or may just not be aware of the issue. But I think at bottom, if you are paying women equally, this isn’t just a women’s issue, this helps men in those families, this helps families overall, this helps lift children out of poverty, this helps the economy. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research did a study that said if we paid women equal pay for equal work, they would contribute $512 billion to the economy. That helps everyone.
JJ: I do want to call attention to a tremendous victory that we’ve just seen here in New York; Local 1180 of the Communications Workers, and their president Gloria Middleton, just won an EEOC complaint that they filed in 2013, where they had found that some 1,600 administrative managers—overwhelmingly women of color—were paid less, $16,000 less, than their white male counterparts, and this is over years. They’ve just won this tremendous recognition, some $15 million of restitution that may be coming.
And I have to say media could not care less about this story that I think is just such a tremendous victory. Assuming, then, 1180 didn’t get to this victory by telling women to lean in, what are some of the policy and legislative responses to the pay gap that are already in play, or that are necessary?
DV: Well, I think that sounds like a fantastic victory. And these are not as frequent as one might think. It’s very difficult to bring and prove these cases, in large part because of the way that discrimination works. So going back to one of your earlier comments, on the article opposing all of this that said, “Well, these laws exist.”
Well, the laws exist, but employers don’t announce when they discriminate. And in fact there’s quite a bit of opaqueness about pay and salary, and certainly about discrimination that’s happening, that’s quite intentional. So it’s hard to root out when you’re being paid less, and it’s very hard to bring these cases. And over time, the laws have gotten weaker through court interpretations.
And on top of that, the laws were passed, the first law, the Equal Pay Act, was passed in 1963. The next one was Title VII of the ’64 Civil Rights Act. And since then, we’ve learned a lot about how pay discrimination operates in the workforce.
So all of that leads us to the fact that we need new policies, new tools, in order to root out pay discrimination. So, for example, we had a great victory in the House of Representatives on what’s called the Paycheck Fairness Act that was just passed a couple weeks ago, prior to Equal Pay Day. That important piece of legislation would update the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to address some of the things I’ve talked about, to address the weakening through court decisions, would address some employer practices that have come to light over the last five decades, and would give women new tools to challenge the pay gap.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally: I know that a piece of that Paycheck Fairness Act has to do with salary history. Can you just speak to the importance of work around that question, of asking people what they earned at their previous jobs? It’s such a commonplace thing, and yet it can be so significant.
DV: So this is about prohibiting the use of salary history to set current wages. And you’re right, that prohibition—and I’ll explain it—is in the Paycheck Fairness Act. It’s also in—there’s state legislation that’s considering this; there have been state and local bans on it. And also, this is actually something employers can do right now.
So let me explain it. Sounds pretty innocuous: We’ve all been in job interviews when we’ve been asked our prior salary. The problem is that if women or workers of color have been discriminated against in prior jobs, then your current employer, even a well-intentioned employer, might be carrying forward the pay that has been tainted by discrimination in setting your current wages.
So, for example, if you were paid something that was discriminatorily low, and they give you a 5 percent or 10 percent raise, if you’re lucky, going to your next job, that’s carrying forward what happened in the past. What really makes sense is for employers to do market research, peg the salaries to what’s competitive for that job, what those duties are worth to the employer, and this just keeps it fair and transparent.
JJ: All right, we’ll end on that note. We’ve been speaking with Deborah Vagins; she’s senior vice president for public policy and research at the American Association of University Women. You can find their work on the gender pay gap, along with other issues, online at AAUW.org. Deborah Vagins, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
DV: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.