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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Objecting to Injustice Isn’t Whining

March 21, 2014 By John Van Hecke, Publisher

The Minnesota Women’s Economic Security Act, proposed legislation aimed to decrease gender pay inequity, is moving from committee hearing to committee vote to floor vote. A conservative female legislator’s off the cuff remark created a media dust-up revealing two critical points of conflict. First, women are still earning less than male counterparts for similar work. Second, paternalistic, patriarchal frames remain firmly in place.

Minnesota’s highest income earners pay less in state taxes as a percentage of their total tax burden relative to income than do low and middle income earners. While modestly altered in the 2013 tax bill creating a fourth, higher income tax tier, the fundamentals of Minnesota’s income tax structure have been in place since the Ventura Administration. This disparity was regularly raised in successive state elections. Minnesota’s middle income-earning majority didn’t like the fact that they paid a higher effective tax rate but the political dial didn’t move until the 2012 elections.

While Governor Mark Dayton, succeeding conservative no-new-taxes champion Governor Tim Pawlenty in the 2010 election, pushed a tax increase agenda, conservative legislative chamber majorities blocked his efforts. They doubled down on the conservative policy agenda. State policy continued compelling local property tax hikes and school, city and county budget cuts. Two years later, voters replaced the chambers’ conservative majorities with progressives. A legislative direction change ensued. I don’t know that simply reversing disastrous conservative public policies constitutes “progressive” policy but it’s a start.

What does this have to do with gender pay inequality? Stay with me.

Women earn less money than men for performing the same work. That’s been true for as long as Minnesota started measuring gender pay equity. In the most recent estimates, Minnesota women workers earn approximately 80% of the same pay that male counterparts earn. In simple terms, if I make a thousand dollars a week programming computers or even directing traffic around a road construction project, a woman worker doing the same job will make $800.

The reason for this phenomenon is complex. There’s a deep, rich body of academic and economic research literature exploring work compensation and gender roles. You could easily spend a lifetime reading it and mulling its conclusions. But, here’s the short version: it really boils down to insisting that women’s work has less value than men’s work because it is performed by women. As women moved into the contemporary workplace, that prejudice followed. Women, by virtue of gender, devalued the work they performed, they argument goes. Therefore, women’s work compensation was necessarily reduced. That doesn’t explain why, within this framework, men would be paid more for doing the same job but it certainly reveals gender prejudice.

Several days ago, State Representative Andrea Kieffer (R-Woodbury) said during a House committee meeting, "These bills are putting us backwards in time. We are losing the respect that we so dearly want in the workplace by bringing up all of these special bills for women and almost making us look like whiners." Specifically, she was addressing legislative language requiring paid-leave but her statement ignited the simmering gender equality debate, engaging advocates and opponents across the country. It even made Time magazine, reflecting the fight’s veracity, reminding us that no one, ever, likes being marginalized.

Rep. Kieffer’s remarks came during a hearing on the Women’s Economic Security Act. This bill proposes creating a paid-leave requirement, increasing the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour, and expanding access to affordable, high-quality child care. It will try to reduce barriers to women’s economic success.

Here’s the thing to remember. Everything that’s been done to date to increase pay equality, strengthen families and grow economic security has decreased the pay equality gap. Still, considerable barriers remain. Doing nothing more will likely keep the numbers and the workplace experience exactly as they are today. Holding steady in the face of defined need isn’t progress. A barrier is a barrier until it’s removed.

Why is championing pay equality, paid leave and affordable childcare “whining” when vigorously advocating for tax policy that overwhelmingly favors the very highest income earners seen as legitimate public policy discourse? Because it draws back the curtain on the inseparability of gender marginalization as a well-tested strategy for maintaining economic injustice. Advocate for conservative policy initiatives and the “whining” objection evaporates.

Building a stronger, better Minnesota means helping lots of people of modest economic means live more securely. Equal pay for equal work translates directly into increased family income. Affordable, high quality childcare increases workforce capacity and productivity. Raising the minimum wage will raise wages for more women workers than it will for men. Addressing these injustices and reducing the barriers to family and community stability isn’t whining, it’s progress. And, it feels pretty good.

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