April 14 is “Equal Pay Day” – the day feminist groups say women must work into 2015 in order for them to “catch up” to men’s earnings in 2014. They point to a Department of Labor statistic that shows women earn 78 cents to a man’s dollar.
Americans all support the concept of “equal pay for equal work,” but the “78 cents” figure actually doesn’t compare equal work. The statistic doesn’t take into account the industries, jobs, education levels, or the number of hours, and years of experience of the workers. Men and women often make different choices about work, which is why they earn different amounts. That’s not a problem government should be trying to solve.
But even if progressives misinterpret the wage gap as evidence of unequal pay for equal work, then they should at least recognize that the government long ago took action to make this type of discrimination illegal. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 both outlaw sex-based wage discrimination. Women have and often exercise the right to sue for damages from sexist employers.
Sadly, none of the laws in our federal code will stop sexist bosses from being sexist, just as laws against violence, theft, or vandalism won’t completely eliminate those crimes. But creating more legislation in the name of outlawing what is already illegal is counterproductive.
President Obama takes great pride in the first piece of legislation he signed, “The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.” This law lengthened the statute of limitations on wage discrimination lawsuits and broadened legal avenues to sue.
But contrary to its title, it did not overnight make all wages “fair.” The president has since been in the sticky situation of explaining that although he signed a “fair pay” law, he believes women are still unfairly paid. Is it an effective law or isn’t it?
Democrats have also proposed the Paycheck Fairness Act, another misnamed piece of legislation that has more to do with enriching trial lawyers than “fairness” toward women. Rather than opting into class-action discrimination lawsuits, women employees would have to opt out. Rather than being innocent until proven guilty, this law would invert our justice system by shifting the burden of proof onto employers, who would have to show that each compensation decision was “job related” and “consistent with business necessity.”
Sadly, the ultimate result of this law would be to discourage employers form hiring and employing women in the first place, to minimize legal exposure.
Undoubtedly, in the coming years, some people will suggest that electing a female head of state will help to make America fairer and more empowering of women. This too is wrongheaded, especially if the candidate under consideration is Hillary Clinton, who seems to have little appreciation for the true sources of women’s economic empowerment: free-market capitalism and individual freedom.
The bottom line is this: We should focus on equal opportunities for men and women, not equal results. Wage discrimination is already illegal. The solution isn’t in more “fair pay” laws, but in empowering women to make the choices that maximize their personal happiness, with no regard for a misused national statistic.
Manning is senior policy analyst with the Independent Women’s Forum.