Joe Giddens / PA Wire / AP

California law tries to narrow stubborn gender pay gap

New law protects workers who challenge companies' pay policies, and requires employers to justify pay discrepancies

California’s wage equality measure, signed into law Tuesday, isn’t the first attempt to close the gender wage gap in the country or even the state, but it attempts to address one of the most stubborn issues in pay equality: the fear of retaliation for speaking up.

The California Fair Pay Act says that women in the state — who earn 84 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts — must be paid the same as men who do “substantially similar work,” even if they have different job titles or work in different offices.

The California law also protects workers against retaliation for challenging gender pay disparities.

Advocates for pay equality say this provision can help workers challenge employers on pay, especially at companies that enforce pay secrecy polices that are either implied or outright, said Emily Martin, vice president and general council at the National Women’s Law Center based in Washington, D.C.

“There’s a lot of social pressure against talking with coworkers about how much you make,” she said. “When you add to that threat of losing your job, it can be really almost impossible to uncover very large pay gaps among women and men working right down the hall from each other.”

The new law also requires employers to prove that any wage difference between men and women for the same type of work is based on a skill that has business necessity. It effectively forces employers to back up, with evidence, the argument that higher pay is simply due to more experience or skill.

“There has to be a connection between whatever it is you’re rewarding and whatever it is the job requires,” Martin said.

The California law does not address every factor driving the U.S. gender pay gap, which has narrowed since the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 was passed — women were then paid about 59 cents on the dollar compared to men in the same roles — but has hardly budged since the 2000s. Today, the average gender wage gap in the U.S. is 79 cents on the dollar.

Some researchers suggest a connection between higher pay and working longer hours. For example, a 2014 study in the American Sociological Review found that the stalled narrowing of the wage gap between men and women that started in the 1990s coincided with men’s increasing likelihood to work more than 50 hours a week, and therefore to earn more money.

If the pay gap is related to a difference in working hours, employers should also consider ways to address the hours discrepancy, Martin said. More affordable child care, for example, might give women an alternative to choosing to work jobs with shorter hours or lower pay, as they do more often than men.

“I think that there are a lot of different causes [for the gender wage gap], but those causes are things that we can respond to with solutions that create equal opportunity in a meaningful sense,” she said.

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