Women's Rights Worth the Work

Written by: Monika Johnson, Roosevelt member from Michigan State University
Originally posted on theStateNews.com 11/21/10 7:45pm

In what could have been a landmark move toward gender equality in the workplace, the Paycheck Fairness Act reached the U.S. Senate last Wednesday.

It held the fate of 72 million working women -- 47 percent of the American workforce. What could have been wasn't because Republicans used a filibuster to stop the legislation before it could be put to a vote. Through the disappointment, one thing was clear: To our Senators, basic civil rights have become a partisan issue.

Essentially, the act strengthens the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which established that employers must have a bona fide reason behind pay differences, such as education or experience.

Building upon 2009's Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the new initiative would make it easier for women to file class-action lawsuits against employers with discriminative pay practices, prohibiting businesses from retaliating against those who do so and exposing them to hefty lawsuits if they fail to comply.

Wednesday's vote was a clean split -- 41 Republicans and one Democrat opposed, 58 Democrats in favor. Did I miss the day when women's rights moved from a national priority to partisan politics? Even the three female Republicans voted against.

Republicans argue that the Paycheck Fairness Act would burden businesses, as they would be required to prove their non-discriminatory practices in the case of a lawsuit. Arising from their long-standing, partisan, uncooperative belief in small government, they are concerned fair pay legislation expands regulation of employer's compensation decisions.

In reality, government's role in ending discrimination often takes the form of regulating practices, just as it did in school integration and expanding voting rights.

I'm tired of being told my rights aren't worth the paperwork. Women are doctors, lawyers, nonprofit directors, CEOs, teachers, athletes, foresters and every other occupation under the sun.

We attend college in larger numbers than men, rival the opposite gender in graduate degrees and make up half the labor force. After centuries of second-class citizen status, I speak for many generations of women in saying that no measure is too large in the struggle toward gender equality.

Unfair wages don't come just in the form of less for women, more for men. Some employers pay women less because their biological ability to become pregnant is seen as a liability, while others assume if they have children, they are bound to be less reliable and should be paid less. These stereotypes and disparities come from a centuries-old social norm that confines women to the home and makes men the breadwinners. Since the baby boomer generation, though, this model increasingly has been challenged, and women are projected to account for more than half of labor force growth between 2008-18.

Senators asserted that limiting employers' basis for wage differences is problematic. This is 2010. The fact there even exists a rationale for paying women less for equal work is problematic. But then again, most of the senators who voted down the Paycheck Fairness Act probably haven't been discriminated against by their employers on the basis of gender. They nearly all are male and came of age in a work environment highly favorable to their success.

In 2010, I hope 41 well-educated senators recognize and understand that a history of gender inequality in the U.S. beckons them to uphold their Constitutional obligation of ensuring civil rights for all Americans. The size and scope of government argument they cite is tired and telling women it's too much work for businesses to monitor their pay practices is getting old.

Republicans are correct -- the Paycheck Fairness Act would mean more work for businesses in regards to proving their equitable practices. But my rights and those of our mothers, sisters, daughters and grandmothers are worth the extra paperwork.

If the Republicans want to wage war on President Barack Obama, this isn't the time or place. Gender equity isn't taxes, gun control or welfare. And with 47 percent of the workforce vulnerable to sex discrimination, it is time to realign priorities.