Anne Michaud: Fair pay for women? Not this way

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Anne Michaud is the Newsday Opinion Department's interactive editor.

Equal pay for women. What fair-minded person wouldn't favor that? Well, the U.S. Senate, for one.

Earlier this month, the Senate refused to consider a bill that would strengthen current law against gender-based wage discrimination. The bill was sold by its Democratic sponsors, including President Barack Obama, as a means of closing the pay gap between women and men performing the same job.


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But even though often-cited U.S. Census figures show women still make 77 cents to a man's dollar, the Senate did the right thing.

Don't get me wrong - it's crucial that women are paid fairly. Women's earnings are more important than ever to support families. Dual-earner households have jumped to 46 percent of families with children, and last year, the number of married couples with children who depend exclusively on women's earnings rose 36 percent. And of course, many women are raising children alone.

For years, women's earnings made progress relative to men's, but those gains stalled in the early 1990s. The Paycheck Fairness Act seeks to remedy this, in part, by making private salary information more public. The House passed the measure in 2009.

But a chief argument for the bill - that 77 cents-on-the-dollar figure - is highly misleading. It doesn't come from examining men and women in comparable work situations. Instead, researchers took the sum total of men's wages and divided them by women's. They didn't account for women gravitating toward occupations that allow for predictable hours, part-time schedules and other family-friendly attributes. Teaching, secretarial work, nursing - the traditional "women's jobs" are still largely held by women. The pay gap narrows with those caveats in mind.

Also, the bill is too intrusive on private business decisions. Employers would be required to prove a valid reason for pay disparities. But what if a company offers more money for work in a dangerous location, and more men volunteer? What if an employer gives a raise to a man to keep him from accepting a competitor's job offer? Does the company then have to bump up the salary of his female counterpart?

It's a utopian wish, perhaps, but merit should be the only basis for hiring and promotion. At least it's worth striving for.

Of course, there are valid pay disputes that women should litigate. But the Equal Pay Act of 1963 offers enough protection against pay discrimination. The new bill could unfairly disadvantage employers because it wouldn't limit punitive or compensatory damages. Companies might settle even weak claims to avoid a jury trial.

With the Senate's inaction, the Paycheck Fairness Act is probably dead. The wave of Republicans arriving in January means the new Congress isn't likely to take up this particular version again. Advocates for women and fairness should leave this flawed approach behind and work with the Obama administration on other critical priorities, like access to affordable child care.

Also needed are flexible workplaces that don't push women out of the workforce at childbirth, and allow them richer opportunities to re-enter their fields after time away.

Women also need to think more about the paycheck repercussions of their various choices in life, from pursuing degrees and training, to assuming that a male partner's salary will cover our household wage gaps. Too often, that's just no longer the case. Women need to be able to depend on their own resources for at least part of their lives.

Personal and political solutions - both are required to achieve real paycheck fairness.

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