Editorial: For women, equal pay is just one challenge
Much attention has been focused this week on the persistent wage gap between men and women in the American workplace. But as recent news in New Hampshire makes clear, wages are not the only problem for working women, even here in the 21st century.
Yesterday was Equal Pay Day, marking the number of extra days into 2014 the average woman has to work to earn as much as her male counterpart did in 2013 – not exactly a holiday worth baking a cake for. Among full-time, year-round workers, widely cited studies say women make on average just 77 percent of what men are paid. Others show a slightly smaller gap – but nothing like parity.
Democrats in Congress, along with President Obama, are pushing smart legislation called the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers who inquire about or disclose their wages or the wages of another employee in a complaint or investigation. It also makes employers liable to civil actions. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would be required to collect pay information from employers. A similar bill is pending in the New Hampshire Legislature where, after bipartisan approval in the state Senate, it seems more likely to pass than in Washington.
But beyond the political wrangling, we were struck – and discouraged – this week by not one but two news stories that illustrated what women are still up against in the workplace.
First was a story about Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams, who was suspended by the attorney general amid a long investigation. Reams’s fight to be reinstated continued this week; among the accusations against him are that he engaged in gender discrimination and sexual harassment – not just once but over the course of his entire career, according to the state. His behavior so offended his female employees that he earned the nickname “Creepy Uncle Jim.” This from a man elected to prosecute others’ misbehavior.
In the same day’s newspaper was a report about retired superior court judge John Lewis who was put on paid leave after lawyers complained about comments they believed disparaged female attorneys. The judge ultimately retired but was then reprimanded by the state Judicial Conduct Committee. According to those present at a meeting where Lewis spoke, the judge cautioned that the legal profession risked losing public respect because so many women were becoming lawyers. He argued that people respect leaders in the business world because it is largely male-dominated. He said the Russian medical profession has lost respect because it is female-dominated, and he saw the same thing happening with the legal profession in the United States. And he said an influx of new female lawyers was negatively affecting the teaching profession because women are becoming lawyers rather than teachers.
Lewis told the conduct committee he was trying to make a point about the persistence of sexism and discrimination, not engaging in sexism himself. His audience heard otherwise.
For working women, gender parity on wages is important indeed. So is the current effort to increase the minimum wage, considering that two-thirds of those earning minimum wage are female. Those are difficult political fights, for sure. But apparently equally difficult is rooting out inappropriate and discriminatory behavior among men in positions of power, problems that can’t be legislated away. The attorney general and the judiciary are right to take such accusations seriously.