In an effort to correct pay discrimination on the basis of gender, our representatives in Washington have left no stone unturned, covering the waterfront with proposed efforts that range from the potentially unprecedented insertion of government into private pay practices to a national award for pay equity in to the workplace to a grant program targeting negotiation skills training for women.
Or have they?
I see a huge hole, a missing link, among this tasklist of possible remedies.
Pay equity proponents have a tendency to view the labor market (and its incentives) as the enemy - a force that must be cowed and overcome in order to even the playing field for women. This is the reason that comparable worth initiatives (which, at their core, seek to override the influences of the market on pay) are such a common centerpiece of pay fairness initiatives.
Many, in the private sector (in general) and among businesspeople in particular, take exception to these anti-market provisions. This is why they have been (mostly?) removed, for the moment, from this week's version of the Paycheck Fairness Act. And this is because the market, in fact, performs an important and necessary task, not just for business but for our society as a whole, in exerting its influence on pay. The market drives pay differences, not on some arbitrary and capricious whim, but for a purpose, the purpose of meeting society's demands for different skills and contributions. Mess with the market and you mess with our collective ability to get the work done that is necessary for our country to grow and prosper - particularly in today's flatter world.
The market, for example, has created incentives - in the form of higher pay - for many scientific and engineering jobs; jobs where need and demand continues to outstrip supply, where we have often been forced to import talent when the homegrown kind comes up short, and where (most unfortunately) men significantly outnumber women. Can the answer be to override these market incentives in the name of gender equity, thus handcuffing our ability to meet our talent needs - in a time when technological innovation and improvement are so critical?
Or could the answer be to embrace that market on behalf of women?
One of the root causes of pay disparity between men and women is our (women's) under-representation in a number of high paying fields. Why not take some of the dollars that our legislators are willing to throw at this issue and use them to attract more women to, and help get them into, these critical and high paying fields? This would ultimately benefit everyone - women, businesses and our society overall.
I can envision a multi-pronged effort that could potentially include initiatives to:
Identify the high earning fields where women are under-represented*.
Examine the extent to which these professions can be "re-branded" and better marketed, in order to make them more attractive to women.
Target efforts early (elementary, middle and high school) to get girls interested and involved in the areas of study that will prepare them for these opportunities.
*Perhaps this effort would overlook those professions which include physical barriers to female participation (e.g., size, strength), perhaps not...
Readers, what do you think? Legislators, are you listening?