Susan Feiner(WOMENSENEWS)–The U.S. Senate decided in November not to open debate on a bill to strengthen current law against gender-based wage discrimination.

The Paycheck Fairness Act was supported by President Barack Obama, among others, as a means of closing the pay gap between women and men performing the same job. The act would have allowed workplace conversations about pay, leading to greater transparency and then hopefully, as in the public sector, greater wage parity.

A Nov. 16 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, based in Washington, D.C., found that half of all private sector workers are either expressly prohibited from discussing wage and salary information or that managers discourage them from doing so. Nineteen percent of all private sector employees can be terminated if they bring up the topic of pay with co-workers.

In a recent opinion piece in Newsday, the daily newspaper and Web site for Long Island, N.Y., pundit Ann Michaud called the Senate’s action correct. Michaud also invited Women’s eNews to find someone to weigh her words, which is why I’m here to take them on.

Women should be paid fairly, Michaud wrote. More women are primary breadwinners, she said, and women’s earnings gains have stalled. But Michaud balks at a law that would go so far as to make private salary information more public so women can see if their brethren are being paid more while doing the same or less.

Her main two reasons for this position: No. 1, the law is too intrusive on private work places. No. 2, the wage gap isn’t really as low as 77 cents on the dollar.

On the first point: Michaud’s concern for employers is touching but misplaced. It’s at least as important for female employees to know when they are being paid less just because they’re woman. After all, it took Lily Ledbetter two decades to discover just how much less she was paid.

To the second point, all I can say is Michaud’s numbers are wrong. She says that when men and women’s comparable work situations are considered–not just the sum total of men’s wages versus those of women–the pay gap narrows.

Stop right there.

Wage Gap Actually Wider

In fact, the 77 cents on the dollar figure only compares the earnings of full-time, full-year workers, so it excludes 50 percent of women. If we compare earnings of all working men (age 24 to 40) and all working women (age 24 to 40) we find women earn only 62 cents for every dollar earned by men. The wage gap, when adapted to the real world of male-female work and wages, actually widens.

Sure, some of the pay gap is due to labor market segregation caused by the conscious and unconscious behaviors that crowd women into traditional women’s jobs.

These jobs have low pay (relative to required training and education) because women do them. If these jobs paid more, more men would apply. Teaching and nursing are perfect examples of occupations that are underpaid because women do them. Setting wages in complex enterprises (either public or private) is not nutrition science.

Evaluation systems help bosses compare the demands of various jobs. Most large employers already do this, assigning points to work characteristics like education, training, stress, customer or client contact and responsibility. Logic and fairness suggest that jobs with identical scores ought to pay the same. But they don’t.

Under evaluation systems like the one used in Minnesota, registered nurses (mostly women) and vocational education teachers (mostly men) required the same level of skill and education, but nurses earned just $1,732 per month while vo-tech teachers earned $2,260. This pattern of unequal pay for jobs with comparable requirements holds across the entire occupational structure.

Pushing Women into Men’s Fields

Later in the column, Michaud suggests that women should just seek different jobs. This is simply a reprise of the old idea of pushing women into men’s fields instead of correcting the under-valuing of women’s work.

Michaud implies that women "choose" low wages because they like family-friendly jobs. But why is it OK for jobs with flexible hours to be poorly paid? Given the time women spend doing unpaid domestic work on the "second shift," this seems doubly unfair. This ignores the reality of women’s continuing responsibility for caretaking. How are we supposed to jump into those high-paying jetting-around jobs?

(Boss to worker: "Hi, I know it’s 2:30 p.m. on Friday, but there’s an emergency–be in Timbuktu Sunday." Worker to boss: "Sure thing, I’ll give the kids my AmEx card and catch the next plane." Not.)

Michaud says that women should stop wasting their time on Paycheck Fairness and focus on goals such as affordable child care.

No argument there. Affordable child care is great for kids, families and businesses. We’ve known for decades that readily available child care pays for itself in lower absenteeism and reduced turnover. So why does high quality child care still cost as much as a year at a state college?

Women need the Paycheck Fairness Act because employers embrace the gender status quo by favoring men in hiring, promotion and earnings. That’s the real issue in fair pay for women.

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Susan F. Feiner is professor of economics and professor of women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

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OPINION: Fair pay for women? Yes, but not like this