Major 2017 retrospectives all recognized that the avalanche of sexual-harassment allegations that brought down major media moguls, politicians, and journalists was among the year’s most notable events. The #MeToo campaign demonstrated that problems with sexual harassment aren’t limited to captains of industry but are a too common occurrence that affects women through all walks of life.
Notably, while many of the biggest names exposed for their ill treatment of women were politicians or political commentators, these events weren’t the partisan food fight that was otherwise 2017’s norm. For the most part, people recognized that this is a bipartisan problem, and that every bad actor on the right would be matched by one on the left. Republicans and Democrats, and those disgusted with both parties and the politicization of everything, finally agreed on something: the need to take action so that sexual harassment and assault are no longer tolerated as a regrettable but inevitable in many workplaces.
High-profile actresses and industry leaders (Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman, Shonda Rhimes, Ashely Judd, to name a few) just launched a new initiative called Time’s Up to “fight systemic sexual harassment in Hollywood and blue-collar workplaces nationwide.” The initiative’s legal defense fund has already brought it $13 million, which it will use to help blue-collar women who face sexual harassment in the workplace. That’s a very worthy cause. They are also focused on encouraging the elevation of more women in Hollywood and the media industry, where sexual harassment and discrimination appear particularly pervasive. That’s important, too.
Yet it’s concerning that the Time’s Up initiative adds combating “inequality in the workplace” to its goals, as if inequality and sexual harassment are inexorably related. Everyone across the political spectrum supports the principle of “workplace equality,” but the measures of equality are murky and easily politicized. And how best to advance workplace equality is an even more contentious and disputed topic.
White non-Hispanic women are paid 81 cents on the dollar compared to white non-Hispanic men. Asian women are only paid 88 cents on the dollar. Black and Hispanic women are only paid 65 cents and 59 cents on the white male dollar, respectively.
These “wage gap” statistics are commonly used as evidence of the extent of discrimination in the workplace. People are invited to assume that the women who earn a fraction of what the man earns are his co-workers, performing the same work at the same company during the same hours. The conclusion one is supposed to reach is that women are simply short-changed because of sexism.
Yet the truth is much more complicated. Statistical differences in earnings are driven by differences in occupation, number of hours worked, and experience. It isn’t simply that more men than women work in high-prestige, high-paying professions such as finance and engineering; more men than women also work in construction, trucking, and other professions that can be physically grueling and dangerous (men suffer more than 90 percent of workplace fatalities), but they are relatively well paid. Moreover, the average full-time working man spends a half an hour more each day on the job than the average full-time working woman. Yes, that’s largely because the working woman spends more time on child care, but this shows that the issue isn’t simply employer discrimination.
Unsurprisingly, given the complicated causes of differences in earnings, there also isn’t an easy legislative solution that would close the so-called wage gap. Sex-based discrimination is already illegal — and it’s been illegal since the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Nonetheless, the wage gap has persisted. In fact, the first bill President Obama signed in to law, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, was sold as a way to close the enduring wage gap. Measures commonly advanced as keys to closing the wage gap, such as new reporting requirements related to compensation or changes to facilitate litigation and the creation of class-action suits, are similarly unlikely to change these statistics, but would add to businesses’ paperwork burdens and could discourage hiring.
This is a topic that people ought to continue to debate. Similarly, we should vigorously research and debate policies related to child care, paid-leave practices, scheduling and flextime, and other issues related to women workers and families. But let’s debate these policies separately from the issue of sexual harassment and assault. Let’s resist the temptation to use our outrage in behalf of sex-assault victims as justification for tying our favored policy reforms to the #MeToo cause. Sexual harassment deserves to be addressed on its own without being politicized.
— Carrie Lukas is the president of the Independent Women’s Forum.