Pros and cons of the wage gap

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By all means, ladies, do what it takes to get ahead — but are you sure you really want to do away with persistent wage gaps?

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “full-time working women in Washington are paid $12,784 less than their male counterparts, and the gap costs Washington families a total of more than $11 billion annually.” The advocacy group implies that the Paycheck Fairness Act would fix this gap. I don’t buy it.

The proposed federal law would make it easier for women to sue employers who pay them less than men to do the same work, and would require companies to take more responsibility for how they structure pay.

Opponents don’t like that it would remove limits on the damages companies might have to pay. They see the bill as an overreach by government, and they fear that it might unleash a flurry of costly litigation that would hurt businesses.

I like the proposed law, but men and women won’t start bringing home same-sized paychecks if it passes, and I suspect that the majority of Americans would oppose changes to make pay exactly equal for men and women.

That’s because the gap reflects choices that the government should not meddle in. The majority of teachers, nurses and secretaries are women — and people in these fields earn less, on average, than similarly educated people in other fields. The majority of engineers are men, and they are likely to be well-compensated.

To close the wage gap that the National Partnership describes, we’d need to get companies to pay secretaries more and engineers less, or get more men to become secretaries and more women to become engineers. We should challenge barriers that prevent smart women from becoming engineers or nurturing men from teaching—and many of these barriers have already fallen. It’s up to individuals to choose their own careers.

Family decisions also affect earnings. Women are more likely to take time off to care for children. When they return to the workplace, they inevitably have less experience than colleagues who remained. To close the gap, we’d have to stop companies from looking at experience when they determine wages, or we’d have to get more dads to stay home and more moms to keep working when kids are young. Even if you think fathers should be more engaged in parenting, you probably don’t think it’s the government’s job to force the issue.

Women have made incredible strides over the past 40 years. They’re the primary wage-earners in more than a third of married-with-children families. Young educated women are starting to make as much as their male peers in some parts of the country.

Goodwill and weak laws have not done enough, however.

Female grads who’ve never had kids earn $4,600 less than their male counterparts in their first year out of business school — no $12,794 gap, but unfair nonetheless.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would help these women, as well as women up and down the educational spectrum, to challenge double standards that leave them making less. The vast majority of us can get behind this law.

But it would take much broader changes to the roles women play in our society before the wage gap goes away, changes even many women might not support.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.