Women, get loud! Keep pushing for equal pay

Gentlemen, raise a glass to Equal Pay Day. You've won again. You are still making about 25 percent more than the woman next to you who is pushing the same pencil, tapping the same computer keys, devising the same software or screwing in the same widget. Each year, a date in April is selected to illustrate how long into the current year a woman must work to match the amount a man doing the same job earned the previous year. We reached that milestone last Tuesday.

President Barack Obama is on the case - he has daughters after all. On Tuesday, he signed two executive orders: The first prohibits federal contractors from retaliating against the odd employee who might willingly share his (or, more rarely, her) salary. The second instructs the Labor Department to keep wage-related data in a way that shows the disparities and requires employers to demonstrate that differences in pay between male and female employees doing the same work are based on something other than their sex.

Women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man - a difference of about $11,607 a year - and the spread widens over the course of a woman's career, especially if she has a college degree.

Sadly, the executive order is limited to just a small part of the economy, but you've got to start somewhere. (Mr. President, you might want to start at the White House, where women make 88 cents on the male dollar.) Obama took his first swing at the problem in 2009 when he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Ledbetter, who attended the White House signing today, worked at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. for 20 years. She suspected she was making less than men with less seniority and experience doing the same job, but she couldn't get the data to prove it. When she did, a court ruled the 180-day statute of limitations for such complaints had run out. The law fixes that. Recognizing how devilishly difficult it is to get the information to prove harm, it starts the 180-day clock running anew with each discriminatory paycheck.

The law makes a difference, but it didn't make the information any easier to ferret out. Would a guy tell a girl his salary around the water cooler? It's more likely he'll overshare details of his sex life. Men don't think information lifts all boats, even if they're not necessarily going to be paid less if women are paid more.

Why take a chance? In that way, men are in cahoots with management: They share a fear that fairness will cost them. There's going to have to be a law, and there's one proposed in the Senate this week, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which expands the president's executive orders beyond federal contractors to cover all employers. Forty-four Republicans used a procedural maneuver to block debate, leaving the bill four votes short of the 60 needed to move forward.

No surprise, Congress had killed the Paycheck Fairness Act twice before.

As with great health care and so many other goodies, Congress already enjoys paycheck fairness. Because salary information is public there, Sen. Dianne Feinstein doesn't have to look at male colleagues to her left and right and wonder if they're making more. Sunlight is the best disinfectant for unfairness.

As hard as it is to correct income inequality between men and women, it's a cakewalk compared with the other kind - the huge gap between the 1 percent and the rest. Don't even go there. Talk about the fact that there's a minimum wage in this country but no maximum one and you are engaging in class warfare. Mention that the chief executive officer of McDonald's is making more than 500 times more than the guy flipping burgers and you'll be invited to move to Sweden.

There's no law that can fix that, but there are signs of hope. Shaming is coming back. At least you know that members of the 1 percent are feeling pangs of guilt when they overreact to criticism of their pay packages with comparisons to Kristallnacht. Masters of the Universe, we are not hauling you off in cattle cars, just suggesting you've rewarded yourselves at a level that would make an oligarch blush.

Pope Francis is putting the wretched back into wretched excess. He is embarrassed to live at a level out of reach for all but a few of his flock, and has downsized from limousines and palazzi to a Ford Focus and an apartment. Canon law isn't going to reform the Vatican, but shame might. One bishop after another is giving up his mansion.

There may be irresolvable disagreement about whether it's fair for a CEO (even a superstar) to make hundreds of times the salary of a worker, but can't we at least agree that it's unfair that a man should be paid more than the woman beside him doing the same job. Ladies, let's raise a glass ourselves - not to Equal Pay Day - but to another year of Unequal Pay Days, then vow to change it.

Ask a colleague what he makes. Take it to your boss. The law's not on your side, but there's no law against asking.

Margaret Carlson is a political commentator for Bloomberg News.


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