Happy Equal Pay Day

Posted by WiredSisters on April 8th, 2014 filed in Economics, Feminism, Guest Blogger, Moral Philosophy, Race


According to the public radio pundits, this is the day when a woman who started working full-time on January 1, 2013 would finally catch up, financially, with a man who had started working at the same job on the same day, and quit work on December 31, 2013, while she carried on working.  Hope the guys have enjoyed their vacation.

But seriously, folks, my public radio station is full of tips for women on how to negotiate for an initial salary on being hired, and for raises and promotions thereafter.  Maybe they are coming at it from the wrong angle?  In the first place, most Americans really don’t like negotiating, especially in situations where the other side has major advantages in power and information.  A lot of car dealerships advertise fixed prices, and a whole new economy has arisen to provide would-be car buyers with information about the car market in general and particular vehicles specifically, so they can bargain from a position of equal information.  (The economy has already given them equal power, in that most of us are reluctant to buy cars right now anyway.)  Our stores advertise their prices in print and online.  This is not a Third World country (not officially, anyway.)  Some of us like bargaining (the late Mr. Wired was raised not to pay list price, almost as an article of faith.)  Some of us can adapt to it if necessary (when I resided in South America, I quickly learned to say that my father would never let me pay so much for whatever it was, –and of course, never to go shopping with my father.  Had I stayed there longer, I would have been invoking my husband instead.)  But most of us really don’t.

So why do we have to do it about one of the most important transactions we will ever engage in?  Because (like car dealers until recently) the people in charge of the transaction like it that way. It not only reduces their costs, it impresses the worker with the power of the boss at crucial moments, which is good for workplace discipline.  The administration is working hard to reduce the imbalance of information in this transaction, which is certainly praiseworthy.  But we already have two sets of employment markets in which all compensation information is publicly available—union workplaces and civil service—and no skies have fallen as a result.  Why not extend this system to all other workplaces? No names, of course, just job title, seniority, and salary.  Publish it twice a year, and poor Lily Ledbetter can sue within 180 days of when it comes out, instead of getting her information by accident years later—too late, according to the Supremes.

Or, better still, just publish a schedule setting compensation in the abstract, for anybody with a specific job title and seniority (including starting salary.)  “Here’s what this job is worth, if you are qualified to do it.  If you’re not qualified, apply for some other job.”  (Many years ago, a friend of mine switched careers in mid-path, and went out looking for jobs in her new field.  On her first interview, she was asked what kind of salary she was looking for.  She had done her homework, and named a figure that the Wall Street Journal considered reasonable.  But the interviewer shook his head, saying “We would never pay our girls that much.”  My friend, who was young and snippy at the time, said, “Well, what would you pay a woman?”  Needless to say, she didn’t get the job.)  (Another friend of mine applied for a job with an advertised salary range of “$5.00 to $7.50 an hour.”  She had been an executive secretary with high qualifications before she quit to have a baby, so she had no qualms about asking for the top figure.  The interviewer said they were offering $6.00.  My friend said she was not willing to work for such a low salary, given her qualifications.  The interviewer bristled.  You can’t tell me how much to pay you,” she said.  My friend diplomatically refrained from making pointed references to the Thirteenth Amendment, and simply said that, given the cost of childcare and commuting, she could not afford to work for so little.  But, needless to say, she didn’t get the job either.)( And then there are the two or three clients I had, back when I was doing a lot of employment law, who were fired for asking for a raise. These were all separate cases, different women working for different employers, utterly randomly assorted, except that they were all women of color.  The employer’s rationale, in every instance, was:

Asking for a raise=refusal to continue working at the current salary
Refusal to continue working at the current salary=insubordination
Insubordination=valid grounds for firing)

No doubt these cases are all outliers, and the bargaining process doesn’t usually go this catastrophically wrong.  But eliminating it altogether could make the worker’s life a lot easier.  Americans don’t like bargaining, for good reason.  We want to be able to plunk our cash, or our qualifications, down on the table, and walk away with what it entitles us to.  What’s wrong with that?

Oh, there’s that word: “entitled.”  Anybody who has paid attention to recent budget discussions in Congress has learned to wince at the word “entitlements.*”  Like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA payments. Like welfare used to be.  When we hear the word, we are meant to think of somebody who says “I’m entitled to that.  Not because I’ve worked for it or earned it, just because it says here in this government regulation that I should have it.”  “Entitled” is what we expect to hear from our grown kids when they demand to come home and live in the basement because they don’t feel like getting a job.

*Okay, this is a digression.  The original use of the word “entitlement,” by law professor Charles Reich, and in the Supreme Court case of Goldberg vs. Kelly in the late 1960s, was meant to be a contrast with state and private “relief” payments, before the New Deal, and with the original New Deal relief payments themselves. All of those got paid out by the discretion of some state or private bureaucrat.   That bureaucrat could refuse for any number of arbitrary reasons.  But he was most likely to do so because the claimant was the wrong race.  Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, in the early 1960s, was mainly an effort to extend the benefits of the New Deal to African- Americans, who had originally been deliberately excluded from those benefits (the result of FDR’s deal with the powerful Southern senators to get the New Deal passed at all.)  “Entitlements” were payments a person could get in spite of being the wrong race. 

While we’re on the subject, here’s another way to reduce workplace discrimination.  Most of the discrimination in hiring these days does not result from hiring an unqualified person of the “right” gender, ethnicity, age, etc., rather than a qualified person of the “wrong” ethnicity, gender, age, etc.  Rather, it results from discriminating against one qualified person in favor of another, for reasons irrelevant to job qualifications.  Mr. Wired suggested, many years ago, that if an employer does a good enough job of defining job qualifications (which is fairly rare these days, but easy enough to do with appropriate help from industrial psychologists,) he has nothing to lose by being legally required to hire the first person who comes through his door meeting those qualifications. 

In short, it’s all very nice to provide workers with tips on how to bargain effectively in the workplace.  But it would be better still to eliminate the necessity for bargaining at all.

Red Emma 



One Response to “Happy Equal Pay Day”

  1. Lynn Gazis-Sax (Sappho) Says:

    Glass Door is a useful web site for getting salary information: http://www.glassdoor.com/index.htm

    Of course, getting any salary information does require the the applicant research it, and even then, it’s possible that no one has leaked what that particular company is paying.

    At one of my first interview for a full time permanent programming job, the interviewer got indignant when, asked what I wanted in terms of pay, I started by mentioning what I’d been paid at my summer job at IBM. “We’re not IBM,” he said, suggesting that IBM paid more than any other company could be expected to, and then named an hourly rate that was *much* lower than what any programmer I knew (even starting out right after college) was getting. Well, if you’re going to invite the person you’re interviewing to name a price, don’t take it as a personal affront when that price isn’t the super low bargain rate that you want to pay.