Friday, November 22, 2013
The following is a post by our guest blogger, Prof. Susan Apel at Vermont Law School:
During the past few decades, feminism has raised so many questions and brought about countless changes in the lives of women and men. It may be difficult to remember that the women’s movement started with a demand for “equal pay for equal work,” not only because money equals power, and empowerment of women was much needed. It also seemed to be the least controversial of all of women’s claims. Even men with traditional values (and there were many in my own family) who couldn’t cotton to “radical’ feminism knew the value of a dollar, whether it was in their own paychecks, or those of their working wives and daughters. Why, then, are we still arguing about this?
Earlier this week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued another of its reports on disparities between men’s and women’s wages. None of the news is good, unless you consider it cause for celebration that women now earn 81%, rather than 62% (1979) of men’s wages, and that younger women are doing better but still have not reached parity.
I am going to eschew a discussion of all of the reasons for this continued disparity, because they are complicated: outright sexism, benign sexism, choices of men and women, sex-role socialization, economics. Instead, I will introduce what may be a very small yet significant contribution brought to us by the State of Vermont.
Vermont passed a new Equal Pay Act in 2013. It makes it harder for employers to discriminate against women by tightening the definition of a “bona fide factor other than sex”. What caught my eye, however, is one of the findings in the statute’s preamble: “Research has shown that pay inequity may arise even if an employer does not specifically intend to discriminate against workers based on sex. For example, some employees may not have a fair opportunity to negotiate pay because they lack the opportunity to know what similarly situated employees earn.” (emphasis added) . I appreciate the State’s recognition that we are often working in ignorance. I pondered that in my own life experience and that of many of my women colleagues, we continue to accept our paychecks, all the while in the dark about what our colleagues are earning. In such ignorance, how do we even begin to know whether we are the victims of discrimination?
The Act does not go so far as to force employers to make employees’ salaries public. It does, however, prohibit retaliation against employees who reveal their own salaries to their cohorts, or who inquire about or discuss the wages of other employees. It may be time to start talking and inquiring. Employers may still guard this information, and some higher paid employees may not want to divulge. Discussion of salaries may be viewed as impolite; forcing wage transparency upon employers would be better. But the sound of even some employees acting to share information would be heartening indeed, and a great first step in the do-it-yourself combating of wage discrimination. Oh wait, better move to Vermont (or a mere handful of other states) first. The federal Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have protected everyone from this kind of retaliation, was defeated in Congress earlier this year.