Photo by Jerry Bunkers
The latest shot across the bow in the battle for women’s hearts and votes: a push for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Senate will begin debate on the bill later today now that it’s back in session, with a vote lined up for tomorrow. The bill is expected to fail, and it looked even more doomed after the House voted not to consider it on Thursday. Yet this bill doesn’t just make policy sense for all the women earning less than their male counterparts. It makes political sense for Democrats, giving women a reason to head to the polls and, perhaps more important, more financial firepower to spend on political campaigns for years to come.
The act is undoubtedly sound policy. The gender wage gap has barely budged in recent decades, and the bill aims to help reduce it by protecting workers from retaliation if they compare wages. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research has found that nearly half of all workers are either forbidden or strongly discouraged from sharing that information, yet “pay secrecy makes it difficult for women and men to find out whether they are paid fairly, and undermines attempts to reduce the gender wage gap.” As Irin Carmon wrote last week, this secrecy is likely a root cause of the lack of pay discrimination cases brought against employers. It may be illegal to pay women differently for the same work, but they’ll be in the dark about what’s going on unless they can compare their pay to their coworkers’.
On top of this important fix, it also gets tougher on employers who might be discriminating against women when they hand out paychecks. It clarifies and strengthens the definition of what counts as a real justification for pay disparities and requires stronger demonstrations from businesses that claim they weren’t based on gender. It also aims to proactively deter discrimination from happening in the first place by strengthening the penalties for businesses that fail to provide equal compensation.
But it’s also good politics. Much of the battle over women voters is going to narrow in on unmarried ones. Of the 53.1 million women eligible to vote in 2008, 70 percent went for Obama, but many of them stayed home in the 2010 midterms. Since then their ranks have risen to 55 million, and they could make or break the election for whoever wins their favor. And the gender wage gap may be on the top of their minds as they make that decision. “For unmarried women, paycheck fairness is one of their top economic issues,” pollster Celinda Lake told Businessweek. “These women are feeling very economically marginalized.” Passing such a bill could be just what it takes to motivate them to get to the polls and vote Democratic.
The political benefits could go beyond mere votes, however. Fundraising is critical in all campaigns, but in recent years the amount of money needed to win has grown exponentially. It’s estimated that $540 million was spent on all US elections in 1976, but that figure ballooned to $3.9 billion in 2000. Some even speculated that Obama would need to break the ten-figure mark this time around as he seeks re-election. The good news for Obama: almost half of his donors are women, compared with less than a third of those chipping in for Mitt Romney. The bad news: women are being completely outspent by men overall. They make up about one-third of all contributions to candidates and are a mere 14 percent of Super PAC donors.
Those numbers are almost certainly depressed by the gender wage gap. Overall, women make seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man makes, giving us far less spending power in all things, including elections. And the high-powered donors who make top dollar are almost all men. Not only does the gender wage gap follow us up the career pipeline, but we don’t get very far up: we account for less than 8 percent of the top earners in Fortune 500 companies. On top of this, women who shoot for the high-paying jobs on Wall Street and in the Silicon Valley sectors that also tend to spend a lot on Democrats experience an even larger pay gap compared to their male co-workers. Measure of America found that women working in the heart of technology earn a mere forty-nine cents for every dollar a man makes. The pay gap in finance is just barely better, ranging from fifty-five to sixty-two cents. It’s hard to bankroll campaigns when you’re making so much less than your male peers.
So while addressing the wage gap makes good policy sense, it also clearly makes good political sense for Democrats. It’ll get women fired up and ready to head to the polls. It may also boost our ability to contribute to the ever-increasing cost of running for election. That effect could last beyond the 2012 election cycle and have real power in all future campaigns.