Could equal pay threaten women's marriage prospects?

by Lisa Anderson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 1 May 2014 03:50 GMT

In a 2009 file photo, a customer pays her lunch bill at the Other Side Cafe in Boston, Massachusetts. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

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Economic realities still trumped by cultural stereotypes

There are many arguments - some sensible and many spurious - tossed out against the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Republicans recently blocked for the third time in the U.S. Senate.

They include: It would put undue pressure on employers, threaten job creation and open the door to frivolous workplace lawsuits. It would reduce the flexibility sought by women seeking more family-friendly jobs with fewer hours, less responsibility and hence lower pay. It would penalise men who tend to work longer hours at more dangerous, demanding and higher-paying occupations.

Still others argue that the current fight over equal pay is really just a distraction concocted by the Obama administration to deflect attention from other issues, including the Affordable Care Act, which provides healthcare to the previously uninsured.

And then, there’s the argument - possibly the most spectacularly innovative and old-fashioned yet - put forth by longtime Republican conservative pundit and activist Phyllis Schlafly: Closing the pay gap threatens the husband-hunting success of women and thus is an attack on the institution of marriage.

In an op-ed piece in the Christian Post, Schlafly argues that the pay gap, under which American women currently make an average of 23 cents less than men for every dollar earned, is not a bad thing because women want higher-earning mates and men generally prefer to be the higher-earning partner.

“If a higher-earning man is not available, many women are more likely not to marry at all,” wrote Schlafly. “The best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap.”

The Paycheck Fairness Act does not prohibit employers from paying more to employees, men or women, with more experience, education, work responsibilities or hours on the job.

What it would do is allow employees to discuss salary information freely with coworkers, which would help women identify situations where pay discrimination exists. It would also mandate that the Department of Labor obtain wage information from employers, sorted by race and gender, and hold employers accountable to demonstrate that any wage differences between men and women in the same jobs are based on something other than gender.

The point of equal pay for equal work is exactly that and should not become embroiled in whether it does or doesn’t result in consequences for women in the marriage market.

Schlafly’s observations on the link between women’s marital aspirations and the income of prospective mates refer to hypergamy, an old term for the practice of “marrying up” in terms of income or status. It typically refers to women since, until recent years, most of them relied on a man for support for themselves and their children.

However outdated her argument may sound, Schlafly isn’t completely off the mark. Culture clearly takes time to catch up with new economic realities, and old social norms still die hard. According to a Pew Research survey, some 28 percent of respondents agreed and 63 percent disagreed that it is generally better for a marriage if a husband earns more than his wife. That compared with 40 percent who agreed with that statement in 1997.

Women, who now represent some 47 percent of the American workforce, have come a long way in the last 50 years. The same Pew study found that a record 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary breadwinners - up from just 11 percent in 1960.

Of those mothers, 5.1 million (37 percent) are married women earning higher incomes than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63 percent) are single mothers.

Overall, Pew found that women earn more than their husbands in 24 percent of marriages, compared with 6.2 percent in 1960.

In another sign of social change, for the first time in the 50 years that Pew has been tracking the trend, the share of couples in which the wife is more educated than her husband is higher than those in which the husband has more education.

Among married women in 2012, 21 percent had more education than their spouses, representing a threefold increase from 1960, according to Pew.   In other words, in terms of education, these women “married down”.

For men and women who harbour the desire to maintain the traditional model of male as the primary breadwinner, the growing ranks of highly educated, often high-earning professional women can pose a problem — even if they take time out for child-rearing.

It simply may be more difficult for such women to find suitable mates, as Schlafly predicted.

study at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business concluded that the rise in the percentage of women earning more than men could be partly responsible for the decline in the marriage rate during the 40 years ending in 2010. The researchers also found that the divorce rate was about 6 points higher, at about 18 percent, for couples in which the wife earned more than her spouse.

The impact of high-earning women on marriage, however, can hardly be a reason to penalise the majority of working women who are not in high-paying jobs and make up two-thirds of the country’s minimum wage workers. Raising the federal minimum wage - a measure that was blocked by Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday - would help; so would passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Those 23 cents missing for women, on every dollar earned by men, really matter to most of America’s working women and closing the gender wage gap could cut the poverty rate in half for them, according to the Shriver Report.

For these women, every penny truly counts.

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