Today, Democrats are once again using "Equal Pay Day" — when women's earnings supposedly "catch up" to men's earnings from the previous year — to convince American women that society is overwhelmingly sexist and that more government regulation is needed.
In recent years, conservatives have been more aggressive in pushing back on the faulty statistics and flawed logic underlying Equal Pay Day. For example, Democrats claiming women are paid 77 cents on the dollar ignore the differences in industry, hours worked, and years of experience that cause most of the wage gap. But it's time to do more. Conservatives need their own ideas about how to make our society more equitable, make the workplace fairer, and help women and their families achieve more without growing government.
This week, our colleagues at the Independent Women's Forum released "Working for Women: A Modern Agenda for Improving Women's Lives," a report that presents an alternative, positive economic vision. It starts by highlighting the need for job creation and true workplace flexibility. Today, women's labor-force participation rate is at its lowest level since 1988. Many women aren't working because they can't find jobs that pay enough or offer the hours they need.
Costly government policies — from unnecessary state licensing regimes to expensive Obamacare mandates to our complicated tax code — contribute to this problem. While technology is creating new paradigms for combining work and family life, outdated laws and rigid government bureaucracies are impeding innovation.
For example, the Department of Labor recently moved to limit independent contracting. These flexible work arrangements allow women to work when, where, and how they want so they can earn money and retain vital skills, even when taking time away from full-time jobs. Conservatives reject such government meddling and instead want to modernize laws like the Depression-era Fair Labor Standards Act to give workers the freedom to choose more time off, rather than overtime pay, and the flexibility to consider scheduling alternatives to the 40-hour work week.
Similarly, progressives advocate sweeping new paid-leave mandates. New benefits always sound nice, but they would result in lower take-home pay for many workers — particularly those who already have low incomes — and limit economic opportunities for women. At a time when we've all grown used to customizing our lives, it's time to dismiss one-size-fits-all mandates in favor of true flexibility. We want all workers to have the time off they need, but employees should be free to decide what mix of take-home pay and benefits suit their needs.
Instead of more costly mandates that destroy job opportunities, government should make it easier for businesses to offer benefits on their own and for workers to prepare financially for important needs. Just as the public is encouraged to save for college expenses and retirement, conservatives can champion Personal Care Accounts, where people can save pre-tax dollars that can be used to replace income during time off eligible under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Businesses should also be encouraged, through tax benefits, to contribute to these accounts and to offer other paid-leave benefits.
We all understand that child care is a real concern for working parents. Democrats respond to high daycare costs by calling for more government subsidies, which drive up prices and limit options. Conservatives want to help parents, not just daycare providers. That's why we recommend eliminating counterproductive daycare regulations that research shows raise costs without improving quality. We also call for the consolidation of child-related tax benefits and spending programs so those resources can be provided directly to parents, regardless of whether they choose to use a paid daycare provider.
Conservatives should be clear about their commitment to equal pay for equal work. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 outlaws discrimination and gives women the opportunity to sue businesses that mistreat them. Yet conservatives can improve anti-discrimination laws, for example by clarifying that pay differentials between men and women must be attributable to a "business-related factor other than sex" — current law just says a "factor other than sex," with no explicit requirement that the factor be business-related — and that pregnant workers must receive the same accommodations as other workers with similar abilities and limitations. These simple changes eliminate current ambiguities and reaffirm the principle of equal pay for equal work without creating onerous new red tape, encouraging more litigation, or making women less attractive hires.
Of course, the best way to ensure that workers are treated fairly is a growing economy that offers plentiful job opportunities. Conservatives are dedicated to realizing this vision by reducing barriers to job creation, removing complicated rules that prevent innovative, encouraging flexible work arrangements, and returning resources and control to individuals.
Conservatives' vision of less government and more freedom isn't a war on women. Far from it: It's a way to give women and their families more control over the most important parts of their lives so that we can all pursue our own vision of happiness.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women's Forum, and Sabrina Schaeffer is the executive director of the Independent Women's Forum.