What Equal Pay Laws Do For Gender Equality

Mar 27, 2014

Equal pay laws have become the main focus in in the governor's race between Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott, but how much can equal pay laws actually accomplish for the issue?

Joseph Fishkin, a discrimination law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said equal pay laws boil down to one question: When do you have to file a lawsuit? That question gave rise to the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which defines that a complainant has 180 days from the time wage discrimination was discovered. 

Fishkin said Abbott’s argument against a state version of that law would be the same one made against the federal law.

“Which is: businesses should not have to defend old claims. The records may be gone, the person who made the decision may be dead or may have retired and it’s hard to defend and it’s not fair to business," Fishkin said.

Fishkin said most claims dealing with workplace discrimination have nothing to do with equal pay and they only make up a small percentage of lawsuits. He said the equal pay law only fits into very limited circumstances in the realm of workplace discrimination, which makes much of the fight between Davis and Abbott over the issue more symbolic than anything else.

"Today there is a substantial gap between what men and women earn -- some of that is due to unequal pay, some of that is due to differences in men's and women’s education [and] what they do for their careers -- [but] that’s not something the equal pay act can solve," Fishkin said. "So this dispute about the equal pay laws is bound up with a much larger question about how much we think it’s a problem that at the end of the day women are making quite a bit less."

Fishkin said equal pay laws can only go so far in solving this dilemma.

"Not that much can actually be fixed by equal pay laws under either current federal law or current state laws," Fishkin said. "These laws are not that powerful in the area of unequal pay because as long as men and women are not doing the exact same job -- and almost always there’s some difference, there's always something that an employer can point to as the justification for a difference in pay."