Aug 1 2012

Prioritizing Politics Over Paycheck Fairness

Journalists focus on bill’s impact on parties—not women

Signing of Lilly Ledbetter Act--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/House Committee on Education and the Workforce Dem

Signing of Lilly Ledbetter Act–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/House Committee on Education and the Workforce Dem

When the Paycheck Fairness Act failed in the Senate on June 5, journalists reported the story. But instead of focusing on the consequences of the act’s defeat, and how this could impact women’s lives, most major news outlets treated that as secondary to the political question of why it failed—even if those reasons had nothing to do with the bill itself.

The act would build on the Lilly Ledbetter Act passed in 2009, which extended women’s time limits for filing lawsuits over paycheck discrimination; the new act would include measures to make filing those lawsuits more feasible for women, by doing things like prohibiting employer retaliation against those who question pay discrepancies.

Unfortunately, such explanations couldn’t be found until well into most articles in national news outlets on the decision. And instead of focusing on the actual problems the bill addresses—such as continual paycheck disparity, caps on punitive damages and retaliation against women who request paycheck information—most coverage fell into the trap of framing the issue along partisan lines, emphasizing politicking over women’s lives.

The New York Times spent the first four paragraphs of its June 6 report on the bill’s defeat explaining the legislation’s purpose, presenting the actual vote numbers and briefly discussing how the bill would have built on the Ledbetter Act. While the Times thus set readers up for an informed discussion based on the history of women’s struggle for economic equality, it then shifted to frame the issue as little more than a political football:

The measure was part of Senate Democrats’ continuing effort to highlight divisions with Republicans over women’s issues and to force Republicans to take difficult votes on bills focused on domestic violence, wage discrimination and other matters.

The rest of the article was devoted to back-and-forth barbs between Democratic and Republican sources.

The actual function of the bill was frequently ill-defined, appearing in articles as a deeply buried afterthought, suggesting to readers that they should choose sides before ever understanding what they’re choosing sides about.

Politico’s lead (6/5/12) didn’t differentiate the current bill from earlier equal pay legislation: “President Obama called on Congress Monday to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that targets the wage gap between men and women.” The article didn’t give any more information about the act until paragraph 10—unsurprisingly, since the article dismissed the vote as “more political than substantive policymaking.”

Likewise, the Washington Post (6/5/12) led with: “A bill meant to help close the wage gap between men and women failed to advance in the Senate on Tuesday—as expected.” A more thorough explanation of the bill could be found eight paragraphs down, after the story was framed as a political gambit.

Articles that looked past the political drama to analyze why the wage gap exists were mainly found in op-ed sections. The Bangor (Maine) Daily News had an op-ed (6/12/12) that pointed out how even after accounting for things like time spent in the workforce, women still earn less than men:

Delving deeper into a range of pay levels, 2010 census data reveal significant disparities: Women physicians make 63 cents on a man’s dollar; female CEOs, 74 cents; female lawyers, 78 cents; female university professors, 80 cents; and female bank tellers, 96 cents. In fact, the only job in which a woman makes more than a man is as a shoe shiner on Wall Street: $1.02 to a man’s dollar.

Missing from coverage, finally, were the voices of the women the bill was designed to help: women who faced discrimination but found no recourse in the current system. For example, an blog post (6/4/12) profiled a woman, Terri Kelly, who testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy committee after finding out that her male co-worker who was hired at the same time and in the same position was being paid a greater amount.

The only reason Kelly was able to find out her co-worker’s pay was because he was also her husband. Otherwise, she would have been violating a policy her company has in place prohibiting employees from requesting or sharing paycheck information.

Corporate media coverage could have included personal stories like Kelly’s in order to demonstrate the significance of the bill in women’s lives. Instead, they prioritized the effects of the bill on the careers of politicians.

Carolyn Cutrone, a former FAIRintern, is a recent Ithaca College graduate and freelance writer.