Saturday December 8, 2012

PITTSFIELD

Some years ago I had a couple of girls in my classroom whom I think of whenever politicians begin groaning about the fiscal cliff and how if it isn’t avoided we will be in a terrible depression. One of the girls was a dirt-poor kid from some farm. Her hair was rarely washed and stringy, her clothes dilapidated, but she was one of the nicest pupils I ever had. Bright, hard working, good sense of humor, and sweet-natured. Her mother wanted her to be a nurse, but she wanted to be a car mechanic. Forget the nurse. The family couldn’t afford nursing school. I don’t know what she ended up doing, but girls weren’t allowed at that time in the vocational classes, so in any case, she wasn’t fixing cars.

The other girl was as pretty as a picture. She had blonde curly hair and big blue eyes. She also was very bright, hard working and lots of fun to teach. She, too, wanted to be a car mechanic, but this one lucked out. Her daddy happened to be the assistant superintendent in charge of her school’s vocational department. So he changed the rule and decreed that girls were welcome. Good for Daddy! When last heard from a few years ago, the pretty blonde had joined the union, matched the boys’ pay scale, risen through the ranks and was now owner of a successful Buick franchise!

I have been thinking about her as I read about the alarm over the fiscal cliff. I noticed that the disparity between male and female wages for the same job was mentioned briefly during the campaign as something that, dear me, should certainly be looked into (at least if the candidate wanted the women’s vote), but only as a wishy-washy "matter of fairness." Never mind "fairness." The important question is whether requiring equal pay for equal work would make any difference in the national economy. And the answer will knock your eye out.

If a man and a woman with equal qualifications have an equivalent job, the man will earn 7 percent more than the woman the first year out of college. But the gap increases every year, and at the end of a 35-year career, the man will have earned $1.2 million more than the woman with the same level of education! Note that if the lady had also made $1.2 million extra, the government would have been happily collecting income taxes on it.

Manufacturers groan that if they raise wages, they will have to raise prices. Well, yes and no. Henry Ford made himself famous by keeping the price of his Model T cars purposely low enough and his pay scale high enough so that his workers could buy one! And automation is making human work a smaller and smaller part of manufacturing. But who cares? If women made as much money as men, they could afford the extra price.

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And that’s not all. While closing the gender wage gap would have an enormous upward effect on the economy, encouraging women to build and run their own businesses would produce an even larger stimulus because their profits are largely spent in a local area instead of being whisked off to the coffers of a giant chain. And the ladies’ taxes are paid directly to the government and not hidden in some off-shore island.

If paying women the same thing as men is such good economics, why isn’t something done about it legally? Yes, there is the Lily Ledbetter act that enables a woman to sue her employer for equal wages, and it has helped, but doesn’t quite cover the situation. What is needed in addition is something called the "Paycheck Fairness Act" sponsored by two female senators and blocked in June by Republicans. It would force an employer to state in writing that discrimination was based on something other than gender.

So why hasn’t gender discrimination been sent packing long ago? There are two main reasons. One is, of course, babies, and what does Mom do if the kid is sick? Teachers have already solved that one. They have a sub. There are very few jobs in which one absent employee can ruin the operation. Even operas and symphony orchestras will get subs for a sick soloist. Another approach, taken by some factories, is to supply day care and nurseries for employees on the premises. Some of them are wonderful. Some are not.

The solution that is the longest, hardest but best for the country is to encourage women to take more math and science where the best paid jobs are available. Women are fast getting into the computer field which helps and will certainly grow enormously. But whatever field a girl goes into, if she is paid the same as her brother for the same work, her living standard goes up, the government gets more income taxes, she will not wind up on welfare and Medicaid, and she will have contributed much more to her Social Security.

In fact, if the gender gap were closed, the government would get so much more money in taxes from middle income people that you might not have to raise the taxes on those suffering millionaires. Fancy that! Paying women what they earn might reduce the deficit, raise the standard of living of the middle classes, and spare Obama a nasty fight with the millionaires. And we citizens could relax knowing that the country no longer pays child care workers less than zoo keepers.

A more important reason, and one that is difficult to solve, is that women tend not to get into fields like engineering and finance which are the best paid and settle for health care and service industries which are not.

Dorothy van den Honert is an
occasional Eagle contributor.