While there have been considerable improvements in the gender gap, women still lag behind men in regards to pay even in Western countries such as the United States. In the United States, the median income for women workers is 80% of that of the median for men. This is an improvement from the 75% figure of 1989, but is still a matter of concern. At the CEO level the disparity, oddly enough, increases: women CEOs make about 72% of what their male colleagues earn.
While there have been repeated failed efforts to get an equal rights amendment, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 has provided women with legal grounds in regards to addressing the matter of unequal pay.
On the face of it, it would seem that women are morally entitled to the same pay as men, provided that the relevant factors are the same. This is, of course, based on the principle of relevant difference: a difference in treatment is only morally justified when it is grounded by a relevant difference. For example, if Mike is paid more than Sally because Mike is a full professor and Sally is an assistant professor, then that difference would be relevant and the pay disparity could be thus justified. However, if Mike and Sally were both full professors and Sally was paid less solely because she was a woman, then that would certainly not be a relevant difference and hence would be unfair.
This view can, of course, be countered. One option is to argue that a person’s biological sex is a relevant difference such that even if all other factors were identical, a woman could be justly paid less solely because she is a woman. This seems rather difficult to justify. To use an analogy, it would be somewhat like saying that if a man and a woman raced and they ran identical times (that is, crossed the finish line at the same moment), then the woman would lose because she was a woman, even though everything else was the same. This seems rather absurd as does the idea that a woman would justly deserve less just because she is a woman.
Another option is to argue that women have properties as women that actually are relevant to being paid less. Roughly put, the idea is that women will generally perform at a level that is inferior to men because of the qualities they have because they are women. To go with another sports analogy, on average men are considerably faster than women in running. For example, the world record for men in the marathon is 2:03 and for women 2:15 (my best is 2:45). This is not due to any injustice but to the physical differences between the sexes.
This line of reasoning does have considerable appeal. After all, if the work performance of women is inferior to that of men, then they would justly be paid less and this disparity would show up in the overall statistics. If it is countered that some women are superior to some men, the obvious reply is that this is still consistent with the general disparity. After all, Paula Radcliffe’s best marathon time crushes mine by 30 minutes, but she is still about 12 minutes behind Patrick Makau Musyoki and the average women’s time in the marathon is slower than that of the men. Likewise, while Sally might be superior to Sam, male workers might be superior to female workers, thus justifying the disparity.
This line of reasoning can, of course, be countered by showing that the actual performance of women is at least comparable to that of men and thus the pay disparity is unjust. Also, if it can be shown that individual men and women have comparable performances, then individual salary disparities that are gender based would be unjust. That is, if Sally and Sam have the same work performance and so on, then they should have roughly the same pay.
As might be imagined, I think that men and women do have comparable job performances and that a person’s biological sex does not warrant pay disparities. That is, being a woman does not entail that the person is an inferior worker. This is, of course, an empirical matter and subject to proper investigation. Naturally, if an objective and adequate assessment shows that one sex is inferior to another in relevant ways, then the disparity would be warranted.
Another approach, argued for by Representative Todd Akin (the same person who claimed that the female reproductive system has defense mechanisms against being impregnated by legitimate rape) is that employers should have the right to pay women less than men. Akin said, “I believe in free enterprise. I don’t think the government should be telling people what you pay and what you don’t pay. I think it’s about freedom. If somebody wants to hire somebody and they agree on a salary, that’s fine, however it wants to work. So, the government sticking its nose into all kinds of things has gotten us into huge trouble.”
On the one hand, this does have some appeal. After all, for the state to impose salary rules on employers would certainly seem to interfere with their freedom to create employment contracts specifying pay. People do, of course, argue that in a free market people can always decide to not accept a salary and go elsewhere to earn a more desirable salary. As such, if an employer wants to pay women less than men, then women can go work for an employer that pays women better. A woman could even start her own business and pay women as well as (or better than) men. Naturally, the same freedom would seem to apply broadly so that an employer should not be forced to pay a minimum wage or provide any benefits that could be considered part of the compensation.
On the other hand, there are some serious points of concern. First, the typical employee operates from a position of weakness relative to the employer, thus the market is not free but operating in favor of the employer. This fact can be used to argue that employees can justly turn to unions or the state to help ensure that the wage market is actually free and that one side does not have an unjust advantage. Part of ensuring the free market could thus involve minimum wage and equal pay for equal work laws. History show quite clearly what happens when employers are able to set their pay with complete freedom. Second, the idea that women workers can always go elsewhere and receive better pay or start their own business is rather unrealistic. After all, if most employers pay women less than men, this would leave women with few options. Also, the odds of a new business succeeding tend to be rather low so this option is hardly one that most women can use. Third, there is also the matter of ethics. While some might hold that employers should have the freedom (or right) to pay workers as they please without the interference of the state, this same logic would seem to grant individuals the freedom to steal from employers (or anyone). After all, if an employer should have the freedom to pay workers less than the value of their work, then they are stealing for the workers. If this theft is morally acceptable, then so too would be theft from the employers. After all, if the employer has the freedom to engage in unjust acts, then it would seem to follow that the same freedom could be claimed by everyone, thus allowing people the freedom to rob employers.
It might be countered that the workers agree to the pay and hence they are not being robbed. This would be true if the workers freely entered into the agreement and there were no elements of coercion. However, if the workers are coerced into these agreements (as can occur when there is a disparity in power) then this is theft. After all, if a person “agrees” to hand me some of his property because he knows I have a gun, then I am still stealing. Likewise, if people have to work to survive and face a coercive economic system, then they can be robbed even when they “agree” to accept what they are offered.
Interestingly, an analogy can also be drawn to rape. If a woman “agrees” to have sex with a man because he has the power to push her into that “agreement”, then it might not be “forcible rape” but it would certainly seem to be rape. To argue that the man should have the freedom to use his superior power in this manner would certainly be morally horrific.
In light of the above discussion it seems reasonable to conclude that employers should not have the “freedom” to pay women less for equal work.