Skip to main content

Don't believe the hype: In the real world, women still make less than men

By Maya Harris
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 0958 GMT (1758 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maya Harris: President Obama had no option but to sign orders on Equal Pay
  • Congress, she says, now must pass the Paycheck Fairness Act
  • Wage-gap deniers, she says, are trotting out the same old tired arguments

Editor's note: Maya L. Harris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School. You can follow her on Twitter @mayaharris_ . The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- When it comes to the gender pay gap, the cynics have used smoke and mirrors to deny the truth while Congress continues to come up short on critical legislation.

So now, the President is not waiting another minute to make real progress. He is taking action.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama continued his "year of action" by signing two new executive orders to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws where Congress has so far failed to act.

He also challenged the Senate to "start making this right" by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act when it comes up for a vote on Wednesday. The Senate has tried twice, but the act was blocked by a handful of stubborn Republicans.

Maya L. Harris
Maya L. Harris

But even before the ink was dry on his executive orders, wage-gap deniers were trotting out the same old tired arguments we've heard for years. Rationalizing or outright denying that pay inequity exists, and dismissing the equal pay push as a political ploy designed to distract from other, "real" issues.

Yet for millions of women struggling on the brink of poverty, the wage gap is all too real.

Despite increasing education and greater professional success, women in the aggregate still make less than men: on average, 77 cents on the dollar, and even less if you are black or Latina. This persistent pay gap has real implications for women and their families, especially when 40% of our nation's households with children rely on women as a primary or sole source of income.

That 23-cent disparity means a yearly wage gap for women of more than $11,000. And what does that translate into? On average, working women in the United States can afford 91 fewer weeks of food for their families, 13 fewer months of rent, and more than 3,000 fewer gallons of gas per year as compared to men.

It's not surprising then that polls rank equal pay for equal work as a top issue for women across the country.

Inside Politics: Equal pay; Reid v. Koch
Inside Politics: Equal pay at the W.H.?
GOP backs equal pay for equal work

More people prefer a male boss, but gender gap is narrowing

But like a bad magician, the naysayers are trying to use smoke and mirrors to fool us into believing the problem is just an illusion. They say the wage gap is a myth, based on anecdotes, not data.

They say there's no need for new laws, because it's already illegal to discriminate. Any differences that remain, they say, can be explained away by personal choices.

While it's true the wage gap is due to a combination of factors, study after study has shown the wage gap — as much as 40% of it — holds true even when we control for factors such as education level, profession or position. It cannot be fully explained by personal choices, and can be attributed in some measure to overt or unintentional gender-based discrimination.

The gap manifests out of the gate and only widens over time. A 2012 report from the American Association of University Women, "Graduating to a Pay Gap," made an "apples-to-apples" comparison of college-educated women and men working full time one year out of school. After controlling for college major, occupation, hours worked per week, economic sector, and other factors, women still made 7% less than what their male counterparts made.

And in an earlier report, the association found that 10 years after graduation, the unexplained pay gap widened to 12%.

Indeed, women's wages are lower in nearly all occupations -- doctors, lawyers, even low-wage workers. And this is true regardless of whether the job is one performed predominantly by men, predominantly women, or an even mix of both.

What millennial women want now

That's why we still need Congress to act, to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to ensure that all employers are held to the standards embodied in Tuesday's executive actions.

This week Congress has an opportunity to go from its standing ovation for equal pay at the State of the Union to really standing up for women.

When the rubber meets the road, let's hope we move beyond the rhetoric to acting on real solutions. Don't make the President take out his pen again, unless it is to sign the new law.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT