What You Need To Know About The Paycheck Fairness ActS

This morning, the Paycheck Fairness Act is on the Senate's agenda, having already passed the House. What is it, and what will it do?

You can read the full text here, but in essence it would update and strengthen the 1963 Equal Pay Act. It would require employers to provide a "business justification" for paying men and women differently for the same work and make it easier for employees to obtain salary data and ask about salaries without retaliation. Among other aspects, it would also create programs overseen by the Secretaries of Labor and Education "to carry out negotiation skills training programs for girls and women" and raise awareness about the pay gap. The president called it a common-sense bill.

Critics from the right, including Christina Hoff Sommers, have argued that the Paycheck Fairness Act would kill jobs, and that pay inequality can be attributed to women's individual choices. Or, in her words:

The Paycheck Fairness bill would set women against men, empower trial lawyers and activists, perpetuate falsehoods about the status of women in the workplace and create havoc in a precarious job market. It is 1970s-style gender-war feminism for a society that should be celebrating its success in substantially, if not yet completely, overcoming sex-based workplace discrimination.

Or maybe that's a little overwrought — and intentionally misleading. Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, responded,

The Paycheck Fairness Act will ensure that a law already on the books-the Equal Pay Act of 1963-is adequately enforced. It gives women the right to know what their male colleagues earn so that they'll also know whether they're experiencing discrimination. Sommers says the bill "isn't as commonsensical as it might seem," but this pretty much defines common sense. If I don't know how much the man sitting in the cubicle or on the shop line next to me earns, I cannot know whether I'm earning a fair day's pay."

In other words, lack of salary transparency is actually a key engine of inequality, as women are socialized to ask for less and men to demand more. Boushey then systematically dismembers all of the arguments that women are choosing lower salaries for more benefits (there's no evidence these benefits are actually coming to lower-salaried women), that work interruptions for family care are responsible for any pay gap (in fact, that explains no more than one third of the gap), or that the gap is attributable to differing educational attainment.

Critics have also been concerned that the act would unleash frivolous lawsuits benefiting greedy trial lawyers, but the co-president of the National Women's Law Center argued that the bill is rather conservative in that respect, enshrining and clarifying existing employment law. "Leaving aside all the barriers that prevent women from bringing meritorious claims to court and the vastly superior resources that employers generally have in such cases," Marcia Greenberger wrote, "the bill just clarifies vague language in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and applies well-established legal standards that are in place for other types of pay discrimination."

Related: Women Don't Need The Paycheck Fairness Act [NYT]
Why Women Need The Paycheck Fairness Act [Slate]

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