By now you may have heard that Wisconsin Republicans fired another volley in their war on women last week.
On Thursday, with little fanfare, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker signed a bill repealing the state’s 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which allowed victims of workplace discrimination to seek damages in state courts. In doing so, he demonstrated that our political battles over women’s rights aren’t just about sex and reproduction—they extend to every aspect of women’s lives.
Wisconsin’s law was similar to many others—indeed, almost every state in the country has anti-discrimination laws that augment federal legislation. “It’s often easier, faster, and cheaper to pursue a claim of discrimination in state court than in federal court,” says Linda Meric, national director of 9to5, an organization devoted to working-women’s issues. “The law is different in each state, but Wisconsin was certainly in the mainstream in having a law that provided remedies for employees who experienced discrimination on the job.”
The state senator who introduced the bill to repeal the law, Glenn Grothman, has had a few choice words to say on the topic, explaining why no such law could really be needed.
Whatever gaps exist, he insists, stem from women’s decision to prioritize childrearing over their careers. “Take a hypothetical husband and wife who are both lawyers,” he says. “But the husband is working 50 or 60 hours a week, going all out, making 200 grand a year. The woman takes time off, raises kids, is not go go go. Now they’re 50 years old. The husband is making 200 grand a year, the woman is making 40 grand a year. It wasn’t discrimination. There was a different sense of urgency in each person.”
This nonsense, along with Grothman’s assertion, “You could argue that money is more important for men. I think a guy in their first job, maybe because they expect to be a breadwinner someday, may be a little more money-conscious”, has been handled well elsewhere, including the Daily Beast article that reported it. Lots of people have challenged the assumptions about division of household duties. Plenty of evidence has been provided to show that discrimination in pay is much more than the senator’s simple assertions make it out to be.
So I don’t need to go into any of that, which is good. I want to talk about that 50- to 60-hour work week instead. Why? Because the person working that schedule isn’t getting anything done. As a recent article by Sara Robinson points out, there is a reason the 40-hour work week was a standard for decades.
The most essential thing to know about the 40-hour work-week is that, while it was the unions that pushed it, business leaders ultimately went along with it because their own data convinced them this was a solid, hard-nosed business decision.
Unions started fighting for the short week in both the UK and US in the early 19th century. By the latter part of the century, it was becoming the norm in an increasing number of industries. And a weird thing happened: over and over — across many business sectors in many countries — business owners discovered that when they gave into the union and cut the hours, their businesses became significantly more productive and profitable.
More productive. Not less. Not the same. More productive, and at lower wages, since people were mostly paid by the hour then. We have many more salaried positions now, but the equation hasn’t changed. And the shift away from manual labor has only made the need for reasonable hours more acute.
In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight. It sounds strange, but if you’re a knowledge worker, the truth of this may become clear if you think about your own typical work day. Odds are good that you probably turn out five or six good, productive hours of hard mental work; and then spend the other two or three hours on the job in meetings, answering e-mail, making phone calls, and so on. You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.
That means that all this talk about paying women less because they don’t put in long hours is nothing more than an excuse to discriminate against more productive employees. What? You want to make the claim that women aren’t more productive in their shorter hours? Well, the general studies are against you. Now you need real, individual productivity data, which is what you should be basing your pay decisions on anyway.
This is much like the situation with salary negotiation that I’ve talked about previously. The ability to negotiate a salary almost never has anything to do with job duties or job performance. It’s a meaningless shibboleth marking the business class that does nothing but disadvantage those who come from outside or are trained in the ways of another culture. It accomplishes nothing but gatekeeping.
Salary negotiation, the keeping of unproductive hours, office bonhomie, and “fitting in”–all of these are things that reward “people like us” and penalize those who are different. They are proxies for direct discrimination that still accomplish all the same things. Saying that women or any other marginalized group gets paid less by your company only because they don’t do some or all of those things is saying that you maintain a discriminatory workplace, plain and simple. It’s saying that you base pay decisions on something other than productivity.
If you really want pay to be equitable, you will find ways to cut these factors out of your decision-making. If you don’t…well, I’d like to tell you that’s going to be a problem for you, but there’s a big group of Republicans working very hard to make sure it isn’t.