What should be done about the gender ‘wage gap?’ Given its complex origins and the multitude of ways to understand it, it’s not easy to find a straightforward solution. It’s not just that women are the newest members of the workforce and therefore are paid less, and it’s not that women choose lower-paying professions. We need to ask deeper questions. Where did the wage gap begin? Is it inherent in capitalist modes of production? How do identity-based power distinctions factor in? How does capital manipulate these distinctions in the labor market?

The simplest interpretation of the wage gap is that women, doing identical work to men, are paid significantly less. The solution seems equally simple: equal compensation for identical work. Employer, and perhaps government, action is necessary to see this through. Skeptics, on the other hand, either reject the gap’s existence or try to legitimize it. Others, believing it a purposeful lie to accomplish nakedly political ends, propose a reexamination of the issue.

And there are, of course, extremists, who believe the wage gap is good and should be cultivated. Constitutional law figures like Phyllis Schlafly—(in)famous for helping kill the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution in 1982, effectively denying women equal rights—continue to advocate this position: the wage gap is good because it allows women to find financially secure husbands. There are many (so many) problems with her views, but I’ll forgo delving into them in favor of exploring an argument that has been, so far, largely ignored in the debate.

A Divided Workforce

It seems to me that today’s debate overlooks an important strategy of business: to keep the work force divided. This is a topic braided into the work of geographer David Harvey, one of the world’s most critical analysts of capitalism, its contradictions, and injustices. Harvey’s work follows that of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx, among others, whose works partly examined the inequality of wages.

In The Enigma of Capital, Harvey argues that big business seeks control of labor by pitting individual workers in competition with one another. To the degree that the potential labor force is gendered (or divided along race, ethnic, sexual orientation, political, or religious lines, etc.), these differences create a divisive, competitive mentality. Particularly when positions are few, capitalists can use differences to manipulate labor by increasing competition among workers, not only among companies, but within them. As John Gaventa argues in his highly influential Power and Powerlessness, business power shapes actions and consciousness in ways not readily apparent in formal American political processes, making it more difficult to organize. These were the tactics, Gaventa argues, used by the British-owned American Association, Ltd in the Appalachia region to create wide-spread poverty. Even early capitalism, as Harvey argues, involved the manufacture of claims to ‘natural’ and ‘biological’ superiorities that legitimized forms of hierarchical power and class domination.

Even after decades of campaigns for ‘equal pay for equal work,’ capital has the power to preserve such distinctions—as renowned economist Francine D. Brau writes in Gender, Inequality and Wages, proponents have not managed to close the gap internationally or in the US, where advocacy has been perhaps the most vocal. In developing countries, Harvey points out, the gender disparities are far worse as the bulk of the new labor force is made up of women.

The Linked Fate Theory

Throughout its history, Harvey argues, capital has not been reluctant to manipulate (promote?) these fragmentations, even as the working class struggles to define collective means of action that all too often halt at the boundaries of gender, race, and ethnicity. Political scientists (including but not limited to Michael C. Dawson, Katherine Tate, Jane Junn, and Claudine Gay) have examined the effects of these divisions among individuals of different social groups. One such effect is ‘linked fate’—the concept that what happens to an individual of a specific group is felt by the entire group. Groups can be racial, ethnic, religious, or gendered. For example, women across the US might feel they’ve taken a step towards equal pay rights even if those laws were adopted only in Vermont; although not under the law’s jurisdiction, they might feel the benefit on behalf of the movement.

If workers are to increase their bargaining power vis-à-vis big business, divisions (based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) must coalesce into one group: the working class. In his book Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs A New Kind of Labor Movement, labour lawyer Thomas Geoghegan argues we must re-think how labor is organized. Others argue we must move beyond unions and democratize the workplace. And while a Republican controlled Congress has proved difficult to pass equal pay legislation and labor-friendly institutions continue to suffer setbacks, President Obama remains committed to fixing gender pay wrongs. The Fair Pay Act and his Executive Order, for instance, extend the time period for claimants to submit pay discrimination claims and give greater control over pay negotiations. Still, as Jeffrey Sparshott write in the Wall Street Journal, a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research suggests “a woman born today isn’t likely to see wage equality in her lifetime.” As a first step, we can begin to change this by electing representatives committed to equal pay across all groups, and by realizing that equal pay will come once we understand our own divisions, our own linked fates.


Further Reading


Image credit: US National Archives via Flickr

About The Author

Juve J. Cortés

Juve J. Cortés is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the department of Diplomacy & World Affairs at Occidental College. He holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from USC. His work explores the advent of new democratic institutions in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe.