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Pay equality politics

opinion by Scott Shackelford
Scott Shackelford is a former editorial page editor for a Northwest Arkansas newspaper. He lives in Fayetteville.

Editor's note: Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.

For me the highlight of the October 16 presidential debate wasn’t the WWF-style verbal histrionics both candidates insisted on practicing throughout the evening. And it wasn’t the challenger’s gaffe about Libya that the press pounced on in the aftermath – although, I must say, if you’re going to attack a president of the United States over a foreign policy nightmare that ended in tragedy for four Americans, you need to make sure you have your facts straight.

Instead, it could be argued the real moment of the night was the 24-year-old pre-K teacher who asked a short, concise question about the lack of pay equality in the United States, and what the two leading contenders for the nation’s highest office plan to do about it.

President Barack Obama – weeks away from potentially becoming the nation’s third consecutive two-term chief executive – made note of the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Act, an early accomplishment of his administration, which strengthens a worker’s right to combat pay discrimination. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney rambled about the importance of women in the workplace, and in doing so inadvertently added the phrase “binders full of women” to the national conversation.

Still, it felt like both candidates missed a chance to give the best answer possible. Asking someone whether they support pay equity between the sexes is akin to inquiring whether someone prefers kittens and puppies to Nazis. It’s a dumb question.

Who in their right mind doesn’t support legislation that further closes the pay equity gap in the workplace? Conservatives argue that the modern statistical gap is so small it isn’t worth arguing about in comparison to most big picture policies. But I disagree. Even a 5% difference, or less, is worth beating a drum about until the problem is that much closer to being solved.

Forcefully supporting any action as president – whether that be backing specific legislation, enforcing an executive order, or simply giving more than lip service to the issue – would have been the correct response.

And why not be passionate on the subject?

The Center for American Progress reports that in 2010 a woman who worked full-time, year round, made 77% of what her male counterparts earned (roughly $47,715 to $36,931), and this despite more and more becoming the family breadwinners and outpacing men in the college degree department. Over a 40-year career, it is said the average woman loses $431,000 as a result.

Just one year ago in Arkansas, the American Association of University Women noted that the Natural State’s female workforce earned roughly 82% of what their male counterparts eventually took home.

Naturally, the gains woman have made in recent decades cannot be undersold. Half a century ago “Help Wanted – Male” signs were commonplace. It wasn’t until passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 that it became illegal to pay women lower rates for the same work simply because they didn’t happen to be a man. As a result, the 1967 female earning about 58 cents to every man’s dollar (again, this according to the Center for American Progress) would be better off in today’s world.

Perhaps the nation requires passage of a newer, tougher version of the Equal Pay Act – though Romney would surely disagree with that medicine, as he is fond of saying enforcement of the rules on the books and nothing more is what the country needs.

Both candidates should have told the young woman standing before them that they would be willing to appoint a presidential commission to review the standing of women in modern society, and whose findings could innumerate a litany of ways to improve life for U.S. women. One of the questions such a committee might attack would be the nation’s gender pay gap – the extent to which it really exists, and what more can be done about it.

What percentage of that 77% is real discrimination? And what amount is a result of the choices women make in life, be it having children and leaving the workforce; or choosing to become a teacher instead of a doctor or lawyer. One job certainly pays less than the others, and yet is just as important (if not more so) in the creation of a functioning society.

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Another good place to start might be passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would strengthen and expand the Equal Pay Act of 1963. It remains up for debate in Congress.

Probably nothing could be done tomorrow, or in the next decade, to bring about complete pay wage equilibrium. But candidates at the state and national level could appear to care more about solving such issues, which itself would be a step in the right direction.

I happen to think the women in my life work pretty darn hard for the dollars they earn, and deserve some extra guarantees that the cash they rightfully earn isn’t left on the table due to any glitch in the system.

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