June 25 2008
Pandering to Women, Barack Obama twists truth on equal pay
Carrie L. Lukas
First appeared in the New York Daily News
For a "new" kind of politics, Barack Obama's rhetoric sounds awfully familiar. The senator from Illinois may decry his critics as practicing "old politics," yet he freely employs one of the most shopworn political tactics when pandering to women.
At an event this week in New Mexico, Obama repeated the misleading claim that "women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men," and dismissed the notion that factors other than discrimination explain the wage gap as "just totally wrong."
Yet even the organizations that champion the most aggressive government action in the name of equal pay acknowledge that most of the wage gap is a result of men and women's different choices related to work, not employment discrimination. A 2007 report from The American Association of University Women, for instance, found that most of the wage gap could be explained by factors such as employment, education and personal choices. Pay differential wasn't just the result of sexism in the workplace.
The statistic Obama repeats compares only the median wages of full-time working men with the median wages of full-time working women. It doesn't take into account different occupations by gender. Nor does it account for differences in total hours worked (Department of Labor data shows that even full-time working women spend less time in the office each day than men). Nor does it factor in years of experience (women take more time out of the workforce than men) or myriad other factors that impact compensation.
We all know from our own job searches that money isn't everything. At the event in New Mexico, Obama talked about the challenge of balancing his desire for family time with his political ambitions. Michelle Obama - who made more than a quarter of a million dollars working at Chicago hospitals in 2006, far exceeding her husband's Senate salary - has obviously had her own challenges balancing work and family. These are the kinds of choices and tradeoffs that all American families make regarding their career decisions.
No one claims that workplace sexism is nonexistent. But the flawed 77-cent statistic says nothing about discrimination's extent. What it does is encourage women to feel victimized and in need of government protection.
Obama tars those opposed to legislation called the "Fair Pay Restoration Act" as opponents of equal pay for women. That's a gross mischaracterization. Equal pay is already required by law; it has been since 1963. The Fair Pay Restoration Act would extend the time period during which an employee can bring suit against an employer for discrimination. Instead of having to take action within 180 days of a decision about compensation, employees could sue within 180 days after receiving a check related to such a decision. As a result, lawsuits could be filed decades after a compensation package was negotiated.
This longer period wouldn't discourage discriminatory behavior today - but would open the door for lawyers to unearth old grievances in pursuit of new legal fees.
Even a champion of equal pay must understand the need in employment law for balance - a middle ground between protecting the rights of employees to seek redress and the need for employers to be free from costly, frivolous litigation. It doesn't fit neatly in a campaign speech, but raising costs on employers can in fact hurt workers, including women. High employment costs reduce wages and job growth and drag down the economy.
It would be refreshing to hear a presidential candidate speak honestly about the progress women have made in America - rather than playing to false grievances. Unfortunately, Sen. Obama's "new politics" seems to be business as usual.
Lukas is the vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women's Forum and author of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex and Feminism."