Friday, 30 January 2009

Victory for Lilly Ledbetter

So far I've resisted buying into the Obamarama. My distrust of US politics makes me suspect anyone who gets to the presidential nomination stage is a bit dodgy at the least. And Obama's position on Gaza didn't exactly spin my wheels.

But today, Obama got it right as he signed off his first bit of legislation: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. The law strengthens the rights of women experiencing pay discrimination to seek redress. It's named after the woman whose twenty-year quest for gender pay parity lead her from a workplace dispute to a political battle, culminating in the passage of the Act.

I can't say I believe this legislation will have huge effects on the gender pay gap in the US. To claim her right to equal pay, a woman must still be willing to pick what may be a long and involved fight with her employer - with all the unpleasantness that entails. And if 1990s New Zealand is anything to go by, recessions narrow the gender pay gap by lowering men's pay and conditions, not raising women's. Unemployment exerts downward pressure on wages, so men are more likely to end up in part-time, casual, poorly paid jobs, like their female counterparts.

But I don't want to look at the hole and miss the doughnut. Today's legislation may not overturn pay discrimination overnight, but its symbolism is important. In the US and far beyond it, gender inequality often slips beneath the radar, somehow less serious than other forms of discrimination. But when Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act today, saying as he did it 'we are all created equal', that 'we' included women.

1 comment:

Julie said...

Even when legislation doesn't specifically change the legal situation in all cases in employment my observation is that it still has a significant effect.

For example, I'm find in my union work that people are using 90 trial periods a lot more now than they did before the passage of the relevant amendment to the ERA late last year. Despite the fact that it doesn't come in until 1st March, and their business has more than 20 employees so it wouldn't apply to them anyway. I'm anticipating a lot of legitimate legal challenges to illegitimate 90 day firings throughout this year, but the sad fact is that most of the people who lose their jobs this way will never get fair treatment, even after the fact, because they probably won't be in a union or able to access other support.

So it makes sense to me that the new fair pay laws in the USA could have a positive effect far beyond their direct legal interpretation would suggest. Here's hoping!