The Gender Wage Gap in the United States: Current Policy and an Improved Approach for Closing the Gap

By Sareen Armani
2013, Vol. 5 No. 06 | pg. 2/4 |

The importance of establishing equality in the workplace

What is it to be a citizen if it is not the correct balance between duties and rights, blanketed with equality as a driving force, ensuring a proper standard of living? As equal citizens of the United States of America, there should not be opposing sides within a whole, haggling over equality rights. Rather, a truly united country should promote and ensure equality without debate, without using such a basic necessity and a basic right as bait for elections or as a means of business profit. As Obama mentioned, we are all created equal, and any discriminatory segregation is constructed through socialization and should be removed. The gender pay gap is a prime example of persisting inequality in America today, directly violating our rights as citizens of the United States.

In addition to equality, if the gender wage gap is closed, the Institute of Women’s Policy Research’s president, Heidi Hartmann, claims that the economy would grow to the extent that the GDP would increase by 3-4%. (Bassett, 2012) If employees were hired based on merit and actual productivity rather than perceived productivity skewed by gender roles, the pool of talent in the workforce would expand, thereby stimulating productivity and contributing to economic growth. Human resources would be used most efficiently. Women workers who are currently unemployed or are obtaining social benefits will perhaps be attracted to the increased pay and will enter the workforce. Of the total social benefit and Medicaid recipients, women receive 80% and 70% respectively. With an influx of such women into the workforce and the implementation of equal work for equal pay, governmental money spent on federal assistance would decrease substantially, since a majority of those receiving social benefits are women. With the closing of the gender wage gap, we will witness the appearance of equality for all, along with a growth spurt in the economy.

Current attempts to close the gap

United States

Despite current policies and attempts to reduce the gender wage gap, the 23% gap has remained stagnant for the last 5 years. The 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill President Obama signed into law, but was blocked by Senate Republicans. It would have reversed the Supreme Court’s decision of a 180 day statute of limitations for those discriminated against, therefore extending the time period in which such victims could challenge their employers in court for discriminatory compensation. A similar act, the Paycheck Fairness Act of 2009, was designed to strengthen the Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938 and the 1963 Equal Pay Act, but was twice defeated in 2010 and 2012 by the Senate. This act would have accomplished a series of tasks including but limited to: sealing loopholes and requiring business reasons by employers if any wage disparities were found; prohibiting any employer retaliation against employees for exchanging salary information, thereby exposing any apparent wage discrimination; and providing governmental grants for the funding of resources to help women hone their salary negotiation skills (The White House, 2011).

With the blockage of such vital acts, the wage gap continues to persist, and there have since been organizations that attempt to achieve the tasks set forth by the failed Acts. The nonprofit organization, W.A.G.E., Women Are Getting Even, attempts to educate women to understand the pay gap, learn one’s market worth, and engage in practical negotiation. By offering negotiation workshops at schools and universities, they attempt to close the pay gap (Bennett, 2012). However, to effectively combat the problem, a comprehensive and intersectional approach must be taken that directly addresses the issues related to gender inequality and discrimination. By simply providing negotiation training for women as a sole means of closing the gap, the focus and blame is placed on the part of the women workers, rather than on the macro, the employers. An assumption is thus made, attributing the persisting existence of the wage gap to all women’s supposed lack of necessary negotiation skills. Is this approach not discriminatory in itself, if the crux of the organization’s attempt lies in the acceptance of the socially constructed gender roles, in that all women are “gentle, submissive, empathetic”(Fine, 2010) and thus must be taught to behave otherwise? Although such an approach attempts to redefine women’s gender roles and might have more women asking for raises, it will not produce substantial results in closing the gap, as no measures are taken on the part of the employer, who in fact is in control of discrimination and the determination of equal opportunity in practice (Dobbin, 2011).

Other measures taken include the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which provides standards for equal pay for equal work no matter one’s gender. Additionally, the Federal Family Care and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows for twelve weeks of unpaid leave for covered employees, if the employee has worked with the employer for twelve months, having worked at least 1250 hours, and if the employer is covered by the FMLA, by employing fifty or more people within a seventy five mile radius of the employee’s workplace. FMLA is not specific to employees who need to take care of a newborn child within one year of birth, as it allows employees to take leave for personal serious medical problems, orto take care of a spouse, child, or parent with an impending medical concern. In terms of pregnancy leaves, individual states have varying pregnancy disability leaves, paid or unpaid.

While there is no bureau or agency devoted to the enforcement of preemptive measures before discrimination, there are offices and practices that process discrimination claims and promote equal pay. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) allows for the filing of discrimination claims against unequal pay or pregnancy discrimination. Similarly, the Department of Labor consist of a Women Workers Bureau, which vouches for equal pay but does not concern itself with the punishments of discriminatory practices. In addition, each state has its own state agency or department that enforces anti discrimination laws by receiving and processing individual clams. Evidently, the court system is the primary means through which discrimination and the pay gap are combatted, as lawsuits are filed based on the Civil Rights Act, Equal Pay Act, FMLA, discrimination laws, and other federal and state laws.


In the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gap Report, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden were ranked highest in closing their pay gaps, whereas the United States ranked 22nd. Iceland remains the highest-ranking country since 2009, and the United States has dropped in its rankings from 17th in 2011 to 22nd in 2012. The United States has been one of the remaining countries yet to adopt a proper range of policies directly addressing the wage gap.

Iceland, having the first female head of state in the world in 1980, and being the country with the smallest pay gap, is an exemplary model for western nations. In addition to having successfully passed a variety of equal pay acts, Ireland has erected governmental branch dedicated to gender equality, located within the Ministry of Social Affairs. The minister of social affairs oversees the implementation of the gender equality legislation. Meanwhile three subsections are delegated to perform their own independent tasks in an integrated approach to closing the gap: The Center for Gender Equality provides education and counseling on gender equality; The Complaints Committee on Gender Equality issues its opinions on whether or not laws have been violated; and The Gender Equality Council concerns itself with the status and rights of women in the labor market. Having one of the highest fertility rates in Europe, Iceland has implemented a paid leave system consisting of a total of nine months 80% paid leave: three months for each parent and three months to be allocated as the parents please (Iceland, Ministry of Social Affairs, 2006). With such a generous program, mothers do not have to be penalized by the motherhood penalty, but are instead granted job security after childbirth. Compared to Iceland’s policies, the lack of paid leave and the absence of a governmental branch dedicated to gender equality have kept the United States pay gap stagnant at 23%.

Policy Proposals

Creation of a Governmental Branch and Tax Impositions

In 2001, our nation’s number one retailer, Walmart, was served with a class action lawsuit in San Francisco, CA. In Dukes et al. v. Walmart Stores, Inc., six female Walmart employees claimed that the company discriminated against its female employees in promotions, job assignments, and pay decisions, while retaliating against any women who had the audacity to challenge the corporation’s illegal practices (Walmart Class, 2012). The class action grew to encompass a total of 1.5 million nationwide female Walmart employees since 1998, claiming to have been victims of the systematic discrimination by the corporation. In June 2011, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on whether or not this class of 1.5 million female employees should be certified as a nationwide class (Liptak, 2011). It egregiously rejected class certification, thereby throwing out one of American’s largest discrimination cases. The Supreme Court ruled not to certify that class action, citing a lack of commonality of issues as the reason, in that each individual worker’s situation was too different and that there could be no evidence stating that the nation’s dominating chain, Walmart, operated and continues to operate under a policy of discrimination. The court did not rule that Walmart had not engaged in discriminatory behavior, but only that the claim could not proceed as a class. The court was hence faced with crippling complications when attempting to measure discrimination within a whole franchise comprised of individually functioning parts. Since June 2011, other measures have been taken to dismantle Walmart’s inequality regime, including the filing of four statewide class action lawsuits in California, Texas, Florida, and Tennessee, and the filing of discriminatory claims with the EEOC eventually leading to additional individual or class action lawsuits.

1.5 million American citizens were denied their equality rights in the Walmart case. With the current equal pay policies and practices in the United States, mass scale discrimination went unnoticed for years, and was essentially pardoned upon exposure. In practice, it is indeed the corporations and not the courts that determine workplace equal opportunity and pay gap policies must address the core that is the employer (Dobbin, 2011). Idealistic theories to reduce the pay gap do not match up with subpar applications in the real world. The pay gap continues to persist as current policies due not properly tackle the issue of inequality and do not attempt to immobilize and regulate corporation’s practices. Instead, acts and laws are proposed that seek to punish discrimination after the fact. Organizations such as W.A.G.E. are established and attempt to demand equal pay by mistakenly focusing on inducing change in the employees rather than in the employers, while the employers are the ones in control of the pay gap and those who need to be rebuked. Discrimination thus continues to poison the veins of our society.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

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