Sexual Politics 

The Sexism Tax

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WOMEN MAKE LESS money than men. Old news. And yet! So fresh! So new! It's still the sad reality all over the country, even in earthy, equity-spouting places like Portland.

Sure, we rip off ladies less than most of America does. In Portland, women working full-time make 85 percent of what men bring home, compared to 77 percent nationally, says a new report from the National Partnership for Women and Families. Education helps everyone make more, but it doesn't decrease the gap.

There are a bunch of reasons why women are paid less than men: We're more likely to take time off for our families, for example, and we're more likely to enter lower-paying careers. But classic sexism isn't off the hook here.

According to a new analysis from Boston University, reported in the New York Times, even college-educated women in their 20s, working full-time with no kids, make 87 percent of what men in their 20s with no kids and college degrees make. No kids, working the same hours, with the same education—13 cents lost from every dollar. It's a 13 percent sexism tax, levied by employers, directed to a general fund marked "pockets."

In the presidential debate last week, both candidates talked in circles about taxes, taxes, and taxes. But I'm not crossing my fingers that either dude will ever mention the sexism tax—they didn't utter the word "women" once in the entire 90-minute domestic policy debate.

At least this routine shortchanging is on the table in Oregon politics. Oregon's Council on Civil Rights met last week to discuss the wage gap; they're digging into the numbers and trying to figure out why we continue to underpay women to the tune of nearly $10,000 each and every year.

Here's what the wage gap looks like, as various people testified to the commission: A woman with 10 years of experience trained a newly hired man and found out he was being paid 10 percent more than her. Employers are less likely to hire a mother than a woman who isn't one. Bosses fire women when they get pregnant.

"There are a lot of white males out there trying to make sure we don't see what we're talking about right now," said council member, radio host, and general hilarious person Carl Wolfson. "There are a lot of people who want all these voices cut out."

"We need to quit making this a 'women's issue.' We need to make men understand that they will pay the price for underpaying women," said councilor Mary Botkin. "They'll pay the bill at the end of our careers when we're on Medicare."

The valid question here is how the state—for all its good intentions—can actually do anything about the wage gap. Underpaying women has been illegal in Oregon since 1955, when the state passed an Equal Pay Act eight years before Congress. That's right, the same year Rosa Parks was arrested and people rioted at an Elvis concert, Oregon declared that men and women would be paid the same money for the same work. We've been working at wage-equality-under-law for 57 years and we still haven't gotten there.

These days, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian says he wants to start some sort of process to systematically evaluate whether Oregon companies have equal pay scales, rather than just responding to employee complaints.

The civil rights council isn't going to draft some kind of mind-blowing radical culture-change policy that persuades men to become nurses and bosses to promote women. Unequal pay clearly isn't going to go away just because the government says it should. Instead, the best we can push for from government is a more effective method of whittling down that sexism tax. It's up to the rest of culture to make the wage gap really old news.

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