Wednesday Philosophical Query: Equal Pay Edition

Romney started a meme with his factually questionable “Show me the women” answer to yesterday’s debate question about equal pay for men and women, but I cringed more at Obama’s poorly stated response.  The president defended equal pay, as well he should have, but he spoke as if its being a women’s issue was not on its own sufficient to justify much attention. “This is not just a women’s issue, this is a family issue. This is middle class issue, and that’s why we’ve got to fight for it,” he said.  He’d have done better to explain why equal pay is a women’s issue and why that alone is important before he tied it to social and economic structures like the family and the middle class.  And this brings me to today’s philosophical query: in the context of women’s issues, what is the moral basis for seeking and defending 1) equal pay for men and women and 2) the equality of men and women generally?  Feel free to chime in about why gender inequality remains a problem.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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18 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    I believe that the president prefaced those remarks with “I’m was brought up by a single mother” and with anecdotes about his grandmother’s career and how she hit a glass ceiling and ended up training her own eventual bosses. In other words, in order to really juice the claims for the equality of women in the workplace, it is (imo) effective to put that claim in a larger context than the rights of the individual. Many women are the sole, or primary, breadwinner in their families. This was once almost exclusively a male situation, which served to establish, maybe even to validate, the idea that men should earn more money in order that their families be well cared for. So I don’t think Obama was wrong to place the claim for equal pay in the context of family and class (although he should not have mentioned only the middle-class–and that’s where I’d fault him.)

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I don’t fault Obama for defending equal pay in a larger context, but for the way he went about making this case. His word “just” was particularly unhelpful. Sure, many women are the primary breadwinner in the family, but the moral case for equal pay can be made prior to the emergence of that economic reality. Obama stepped over that argument, and I thought that regrettable.

  2. Sam says:

    When even female scientists engage in gender bias – as evidenced by this: – it seems plain that there is a societal aversion to women being paid like men. That’s horrifying.

    • Kim says:

      Yes, yes it is.
      It’s probably less when it’s not in a managerial position
      (some men with dick issues make it really hard for a woman.
      a man could put another man in his place, but if a woman
      does it, she’s a bitch).

      A good deal of lower pay for women is because they work fewer years than men (taking time off for kids).

      Another shot is women failing to negotiate for jobs, particularly straight out of college. Bid UP, folks!

  3. bookdragon says:

    what is the moral basis for seeking and defending 1) equal pay for men and women and 2) the equality of men and women generally?

    I think if you substitute ‘white’ for ‘men’ and ‘black’ for ‘women’ the questions answer themselves.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      To your mind, perhaps, but gender inequality remains very much a socially-embedded reality. So does racial inequality. The answers to these questions are not as obvious as you’d like them to be. How would you answer them to someone who thought otherwise than you?

      • bookdragon says:

        You didn’t ask about socially-embedded prejudice – that certainly exists, but I don’t see its existence as an excuse for saying its okay.

        The question hinged on moral basis. If you agree with the premise that all people are created equal (as Americans generally claim), then I think the burden of proof goes to those who think women are not equal and/or do not deserve equal pay.

        Why? How does that position differ from paying someone less based on race, ethnicity or religion?

  4. Rodak says:

    @bookgragon —

    One could still argue that a black man should make more than a woman of either race.

  5. Rodak says:

    I’m not saying that it would be on a reasonable basis. But it has been the prevalent workplace thinking almost everywhere until very recently, and it still obviously prevails in many places, or it wouldn’t be controversial today.

    • Rodak says:

      Which is to say that those advocating paying women less believe that they *are* doing so on a reasonable basis. There is room for plausible argument, and the other side must realize that in order to effectively counter the point put forward by the “traditionalist” side that would pay women less.

      • bookdragon says:

        Again, the question was moral basis.

        But what is the argument put forward by the ‘traditionalist’ side? ‘We’ve always discriminated against you, so how dare you complain that it’s fair’?

        Seems as though that’s been a losing argument in a lot of contexts for decades now…

  6. what is the moral basis for seeking and defending 1) equal pay for men and women and 2) the equality of men and women generally? Feel free to chime in about why gender inequality remains a problem.

    To answer these questions, I think it is necessary to define what one means by “equal pay.” To some people, it might mean something as apparently radical as pay for “comparable worth,” so that work that is stereotypically coded “female” is paid based on its contribution to society.

    To most people in the U.S., however, I’d wager that most people think of “equal pay” in one or both of the following two ways:

    First, equal pay for equal work. This means, someone doing the exact same job and with the exact same competence (and might throw in “exact same seniority, training, education, credentials, etc”) ought to earn the exact same compensation. A more realistic variant of that excises the “exact same” condition and posts something comparable. So that two people, who do comparable work, with comparable competence, etc., ought to get pay comparable to that earned by someone else, with due allowance for differences in training, etc.

    Second, equal, or comparable, outcome over a lifetime (or even lesser amount of time). One reason that has been posited for the 72 cents for women per $1.00 for men difference (or whatever the figure is) is the claim that women tend to “choose” (some might say “tend to be pressured into choosing”) certain jobs or tend to leave and reenter the workforce and not win the seniority or connections necessary to succeed academically. Another reason, although one not mutually exclusive, is that there may be subtle–or even not so subtle–patterns of discrimination that militate against a woman who makes the “right choices” (professionally speaking) actually winning the same success as a male during a comparable period of employment.

    Excluding the comparable worth approach (which I don’t really understand all that well), I suggest these meanings assigned to equal pay are a cause for moral concern because I think it can be a question of fairness. I imagine that women are often under a lot of pressure to make certain choices and not others, and that this pressure forecloses certain possibilities or at least makes it very difficult to choose the more remunerative paths if that’s what an individual woman wishes. At the same time, I think the fraternity-like atmosphere of some work environments might also militate against fairer pay. Along with that is the labor-market segmentation that results somehow (the mechanism is probably very complicated) in women having the more service-oriented jobs and ones that pay less. Finally, there are probably still cases that it is easier to say, objectively, that women might be getting paid less than men even when they perform comparable work.

    I guess I haven’t really answered your question. By invoking “fairness” without providing a foundation for that “fairness,” I’m more or less (actually more) engaging in circular reasoning. Any foundation I might supply will similarly beg the question. However, here are some of my starting premises for my concept of fairness when it comes to gender equality:

    1. In my ideal world, individuals should be able to choose whether they want to follow a more traditional model of family or not, and if an individual chooses not to follow the traditional model, or if he/she and his/her partner wish to share responsibilities in a manner different from those of the traditional model, then that should be their prerogative. Or if an individual chooses not to have children, then that should be his or her prerogative.*

    2. In a real world, factors are so complicated, and the web of norms and expectations are so….sticky….that it’s hard to enforce my preferred vision of the world. If single parent/childcare providers in the aggregate skew majority female, if so many subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) pressures are exacted on women** to make certain choices, and if workplace culture and only partially conscious assumptions inform employers’ treatment of women, then the problem might be in some ways intractable.

    Wow, what a long, rambling comment! Sorry.

    *I don’t think we need necessarily invoke the issues of abortion or contraception here, at least in my ideal world. But my claim obviously implicates at least contraception or abstinence.

    **Or men, for that matter. I do believe men have most of the power in society. But that belief does not negate what I think is a clear fact that men have certain expectations and choices that they are under a lot of pressure to pursue. Now, that said, there are a lot more options available to men than to women, and I don’t want to deny that.

    • Just to clarify, I should’ve added point 1(b) to my premises:

      Once someone chooses to have a child, one takes on certain moral responsibilities. It is not my place necessarily to tell others exactly what those responsibilities are or how to fulfill them (hence, my ideal world in which people might experiment with how they go about doing so), but increased obligations make matters more complicated.