Massachusetts equal pay law is a good step but problem runs much deeper

Two cheers! But as a next step lets push Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would at least let women know they are being underpaid

Remember all those balloons on the podium at the end of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia? Sponsors of a new Massachusetts bill would like to have twice as many to kick around in celebration of their accomplishment in getting bipartisan approval for the countrys strongest equal pay law to date late last month. And now it has been signed by the states Republican governor, Charlie Baker.

Massachusetts employers, take heed: when the new law takes effect on 1 July 2018, it will become illegal to ask a new hire for her (or his) salary history, and employers will have to pay all employees the same wages for the same or comparable positions. To hear the sponsors tell it, the new rules will finally put a nail in the coffin of the gender pay gap.

Much as I hate to rain on a parade and this is a great parade, with landmark achievements worth celebrating Im far from convinced that this is going to mean that women in the Bay State will soon be collecting a dollar for every dollar that their male counterparts earn. Certainly, these measures may contribute to narrowing the pay gap. But there are other factors that contribute to the fact that women in many professions and jobs still earn less than men, ranging from blatant discrimination to life choices.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act made possible a slew of lawsuits in the 1970s and 1980s that opened the doors to better-paying jobs for women. Greyhound Lines was no longer allowed to set minimum height and weight requirements to exclude otherwise well-qualified women from driving buses as far back as 1977. As recently as 2013, women challenged the Chicago fire departments physical abilities test, requiring the department to prove that it was related to the demands of the job and not just a barrier to keep women out of high-paying positions.

Nonetheless, many women are still concentrated in low-paying jobs they work as healthcare aides, as cashiers, as receptionists. Wages in these pink ghettoes are low and there are few men earning higher salaries; new laws such as the Massachusetts initiative wont help them. Some kind of creative initiatives to compare the kinds of skills required with those fields dominated by men, determine whether, relative to the skills and experience, pay is equitable, and if not, figure out a way to make it equitable, is in order.

Even if women no longer have to disclose what they were paid in their previous job, they still have to negotiate a starting salary. And as any study you care to consult seems to suggest, women dont fare as well in that respect.

Women dont seem to be very effective advocates for themselves in salary negotiations and when they try to play hardball, it may backfire, because they then risk being viewed with suspicion and hostility. You know, the whole phenomenon of men being called aggressive, while women are dubbed bitches? Yeah, that one. That is not a great label to have slapped across your forehead just as youre starting a new job, by the folks who have just agreed to hire you: ball-buster, troublemaker, bitch.

An alternative to that might simply be to ban wage negotiations outright. Thats a rather avant garde proposal made by Laura Kray, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley, and its one of the steps that Ellen Pao took during her brief tenure as CEO of Reddit. Pao explained that the company offered salaries at the high end, and that making them non-negotiable meant that no one could be penalized for asking for more or for failing to ask, out of fear of being penalized as women sometimes are.

To others, thats simply patronizing, and playing to womens weaknesses. Its up to women to Lean In and ask for what they want, and need.

That said, there is still a lot of discrimination that women confront. Consider the famous case of auditions to join symphony orchestras. Theoretically, this should depend purely on whether or not someone is a good enough player, but tests have shown that using a screen, so that those assessing the candidates skill cant see what gender (or ethnicity) they are, means that theres a 50% greater likelihood of a woman advancing to the finals. Where women must still be seen to be evaluated and selected in classical music as a conductor, say, or as a composer they are woefully underrepresented. Only about 1.8% of the pieces performed during one season by the 22 largest American symphony orchestras were by female composers, according to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; only 14.3% of works by living composers were written by women.

There are simple obstacles women point out that many job applications still ask them for their age and complex ones. Consider the lawsuit filed by the US national womens soccer team, which, although it has generated more revenue for US Soccer in recent years, arent on a collective basis, when all of its members are taken into consideration earning as much as members of the mens team. The problem? The nature of the compensation agreements governing the two teams, and their very different schedules, are so wildly different, that it becomes hard to figure out just what equality might mean.

So, while the Massachusetts law is a great move, it is one single initiative, in a single state. And even if it were replicated in all 49 other states, it would not solve the problem of the gender pay gap, on its own, although it is an important part of the puzzle.

Perhaps as the next step, once the election is over in November, we can lean on our new (or re-elected) members of Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. That law, which would penalize any employer who tries to retaliate against a worker trying to discuss and compare her colleagues salaries, was introduced in Congress in 2013, and has been stalled there ever since.

It was only when discussing her salary with colleagues that one California woman a consultant for the Fresno County office of education, who instructs teachers on the best way to teach math, and who has two decades of experience and two masters degrees, was earning at least $10,000 less than some of her male co-workers, some of whom were younger and less experienced. It turns out that her salary had been determined by her prior wages something that at least the new Massachusetts law will outlaw. But we can at least protect the rights of women to find out that they are underpaid in the first place without which, how can they assert their right to fair pay?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2016/aug/04/massachusetts-equal-pay-law-next-steps