It's dismaying that pay equity for women is the family issue that emerged most loudly from the recent round of presidential debates. Pay equity by itself is a simplistic measure that obscures more complex and urgent public policy reforms.
Judging how fair our workplaces are by whether men and women are paid equally is like judging a teenager based on an SAT score. That single number doesn't tell you anything about the kid's study habits -- not to mention character or passions.
Similarly, the oft-repeated assertion that women earn 77 cents to a man's dollar says very little. The number is an average of full-time workers, rather than a comparison of men and women in the same jobs with the same experience. A 2009 study by the economics consulting firm CONSAD Research Corporation showed that when the wage gap is analyzed by occupations, regional markets, job titles and more, women make about 94 percent of what men make.
Gender discrimination may exist in that last 6 cents -- and it's important to address that. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which fell two votes short of the filibuster-proof 60 in the U.S. Senate in June, would have required fuller disclosure of salaries. The bill had its flaws, but this disclosure would clear up inequity fast.
However, it's the bigger gap that concerns me -- the difference between women's 77 cents-to-a-dollar and the 94 cents. These numbers show that women are often making choices based on shouldering a greater caregiver burden, either for children or other family. They're choosing part-time jobs, predictable hours and less responsibility. They're staying home with babies -- which significantly discounts lifetime earnings -- or quitting when the work-family tightrope snaps.
Yes, it's true that American men are taking on caregiver roles -- and thank goodness. Having walked in each other's shoes, maybe men and women can fashion a broader agenda for needed public policy changes.
One need is for paid parental leave. Economist Christopher Ruhm examined 16 European countries and found that paid parental leave policies were associated with lower infant and child mortality. California funds parental leave through a payroll deduction -- everyone contributes. Spreading out this cost could pay California back in kids with fewer health problems and lower lifetime health care costs. Mothers could benefit from career continuity -- and steadier paychecks.
Leave for children's health problems or for parents to participate in schooling is another needed buttress. The Healthy Families Act, which has at times been championed by House Democrats, would guarantee seven paid sick days a year to care for ill family members.
Some say such policies would harm the United States' ability to compete economically. But the data tell a different story. Researchers from Princeton University and the Brookings Institution recently compiled a global database of national labor policies and economic data for all United Nations members. The collaboration, called The Future of Children, found that family support policies and a highly competitive economy are often compatible -- in Germany, Singapore, Sweden, Canada and 10 more.
What's more, employers who have adopted these kinds of family-friendly policies often have higher market value, lower turnover among employees, improved customer satisfaction, decreased health care costs, reduced absenteeism and a better esprit de corps.
Why aren't U.S. presidential candidates talking about policy supports for middle-class families? Certainly, they're a factor in pay equity for women. But they're harder to fit on a bumper sticker than "77 cents to a man's dollar."
This essay was first published in Newsday.