How underpaying women destroys democracy
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This article is the first of several 2022 Defender Network articles that are part of Solutions Journalism Network’s Advancing Democracy initiative. Solutions Journalism is about reporting on not just problems but providing readers with research on solutions to those problems, where they are being enacted, the challenges and opportunities those solutions provide and things readers can do to be part of those solutions. The Advancing Democracy initiative calls on participating media outlets to produce articles focused on issues that are threats to U.S.democracy, and provide readers with initiatives aimed at saving, or “advancing” democracy. 

With the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump intent on blocking the certification of a what some experts described as “the most secure election in U.S. history,” the state of Texas producing a “voter suppression” law so egregious that the U.S. Justice Department sued the state over its restrictive voting procedures, and rampant gerrymandering by GOP-dominated state legislatures in red and purple states nationwide, attacks on U.S. democracy seem obvious.

However, some threats to this Republic, as rampant as they are, flow under-the-radar of public consciousness, yet pose just as much danger to democracy as attacks on this nation’s ideal of “one person, one vote.”


Pay inequity is one such under-the-radar threat according to several scholars, including Thomas M. (Tim) Scanlon, a professor of religion, moral philosophy and civil polity at Harvard University. Scanlon contends that inequality must be addressed when it results in unfair discrimination by democratic institutions when benefits like education and health care are unequally accessible, when advancement opportunities are limited, or when individuals are subjected to racism, sexism or classism (mistreatment of people who are working class, and often at or below the poverty line).

Thomas M. Scanlon

Gender pay inequity, unfortunately, checks off all Scanlon’s boxes. By his definition, pay inequity is blatantly undemocratic because it severely limits opportunities for advancement by further subjecting citizens to the ‘isms’ mentioned and further erodes the voices and votes (educational and political power) of the radically, shamefully and structurally underpaid.

“[Pay inequity fallouts] are issues everyone should care about, and they shouldn’t be discussed in silos,” said Texas State Rep. Senfronia Thompson. “It’s incredibly unjust that women earn $0.80 for every dollar paid to men, and minority women earn anywhere from $0.45 to $0.59. Society as a whole will benefit when everyone is able to earn a living wage and be compensated equally.”

According to a 2018 report for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth entitled “Gender wage inequality: What we know and how we can fix it, “disparities between men’s and women’s wages in the United States hinders economic growth by constraining family incomes and spending power.” The report contends that the continued lack of pay equity for women heightens the risks of individual, family and national financial stress, and echoes the fact that “while a majority of women suffer from unequal wages, the persistence of gender wage inequality heavily affects low-income and single-income families in addition to families of color.”

According to a report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) entitled “How to fix Income Inequality,” “Since the 1970s, widespread progress occurred in reducing the wage gap between men and women across advanced economies, but progress leveled off” in the U.S. and elsewhere around 2005, leaving women in the U.S. earning roughly 18 percent less than men on average in 2019.

The report went on to say, “The United States remains the most unequal high-income economy in the world,” in large part due to the pay inequity experienced by women, especially Black women.

 The PIIE report says ongoing unequal pay has “damaging repercussions on society,” including reduced living standards and growing discontent among the “have-nots” due to the structural failings and deep economic vulnerabilities” COVID-19 pandemic brought to light.


Social scientists who study pay inequity break down the causes into two categories: supply-side factors (worker differences in education, race and choice of occupation) and demand-side factors (societal and structural forces beyond women’s control including gender norms, discrimination and stereotypes).

Demand-side explanations reduce women’s earnings by determining how society values (or devalues) women’s work. Research done by economists Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn of Cornell University reveals that some occupations are paid less simply because they are dominated by women in those fields, including education (teachers) and care-giving occupations.

These factors then impact supply-side issues which show up in educational inequalities, and in choices of occupations which are often tied to societal norms like which jobs are “women’s jobs” and which are not.

“If a job is considered a woman’s job, we (society) underpay it,” says Denise Hamilton, CEO and founder of WatchHerWork. “Teaching, nursing, caregiving for senior citizens, all those jobs, we undervalue and pay them significantly less. So, I think it’s a societal problem, but individual companies can do better in creating that parity.”

Denise Hamilton

On the demand-side, Hamilton says women’s traditional role as the primary family caregiver also impacts pay inequality, because even though a female professional may have the same job as a male peer, she’s also expected to care for her children, a sick parent and/or parent-in-law, and take on a disproportionate amount of those activities that keep the household running. These extra home duties sometime mean less “professional” productivity, less opportunities for advancement and fewer raises. than a male counterpart.

Hamilton also believes the differences in the way women and men are socialized exacerbates the situation.

“It’s always been a challenge for me to say, ‘Hey, I want to apply for this job. I only have 30% of the criteria for it, but I’m going for it anyway.’ There’s something inside of me that feels dishonest and disingenuous. Men, however, are socialized to go for it. You may be a four, but shoot your shot at that woman who’s a nine. Women are socialized to be very grounded in practicality, realism and honesty, and to not ruffle feathers. Men are socialized to go kill it, slay the dragon, climb the mountain.”

Hamilton believes not only individuals but businesses have been negatively socialized, a reality that plays itself out often when women are negotiating for their initial salary or for later raises.

“Some may say, ‘Women need to learn how to negotiate better.’ Why don’t we just pay what the job is worth? What’s with all the games? And that is across the board, across all the ‘isms.’ Instead of taking advantage of difference, why don’t we just try to create as level of playing field as possible?”

Hamilton doesn’t believe industries are purposely trying to take advantage of women, but rather the system is set up to reward companies getting people for nothing.

“As a recruiter, if you can get Linda for $10 instead of $15, you won. We incentivize the wrong place in the system and we’re creating this disparity over time. So, if I start my first job at $35K and you start your job at $42K, I’m going to be chasing you for the rest of our careers. The reality is, we’ve got to figure out a way to have it more standardized.”

Another demand-side issue, according to Hamilton, is the myopic, close-minded views of many CEOs who don’t see pay inequity as a problem in part because they don’t feel it personally and/or they “drink their own kool-aid” regarding their “efforts” to address inequality.

“I think that people start to get high on their own supply. They start to believe their own mythology that this is a meritocracy and if you just work hard, you’ll be able to get every opportunity,” added Hamilton.

Makia Thomas

According to State Rep. Thompson, “Historically, when equal pay and minimum wage bills have moved through the legislature, we’ve seen pushback from businesses and lawmakers, citing concerns for the business industry and their need for making decisions that are best for their businesses. This past legislative session, I don’t recall any of those bills having a public hearing, where stakeholders have the opportunity to voice support or concern for those proposed laws.”

Makia Thomas, Children at Risk’s associate director for early childhood education, said “I really think it goes back to the investment that’s been put in place. In general, Early Childhood Education (ECE), a field dominated by women, especially Black women, has not been something that people really wanted to talk about until really 2020, and the investment level is not there. We know we need it. We know it’s important, but the funding hasn’t really ever been put into place, even federally.”



  • In 2001, I passed the state’s first and only minimum wage bill to $7.25 an hour. Since then, my colleagues and I have filed bills and worked tirelessly to increase the state’s minimum wage and pass equal pay laws to no avail. The last equal pay law that I was successful in passing through both chambers was in 2013. It would have allowed Texans to file suit in state court, which is much more accessible than filing suit in federal court, as the law currently states. Unfortunately, former Governor Perry vetoed the bill.  (State Rep. Senfronia Thompson)
  • There is overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage. In fact, a number of states have already raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The Biden-Harris Administration even issued an Executive Order to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for federal contractors and I applaud them for doing so. It’s a good start! As a state, Texas can be doing much more and I remain committed to fighting for equal pay for equal work and for a living wage.
  • LIMITATION: According to, “In 2020, around 37.9 percent of workers paid hourly rates at or below the prevailing federal minimum wage were part-time female workers.” Hence, raising the minimum wage potentially will have some impact on pay inequity. However, this doesn’t impact salaried, C-Suite professionals or professionals in Early Care & Education.
  • LIMITATION: The political will on the federal level has not been sufficient to have a federally issued raise in the minimum wage, leaving the issue to states
  • LIMITATION: Enforcement of current minimum wage laws is weak and inconsistent from state-to-state and city-to-city.


  • In 2011, then San Antonio mayor, Julian Castro, created a taskforce of CEOs, area ISD superintendents and educators to elevate education in the city. The taskforce recommended a program focusing on four-year-olds, and thus Pre-K 4 SA ( was born. The effort required funding in the form of taxes which was endorsed by educators, business leaders and activists.
  • The business community has not always been so connected to early childhood education. I think the pandemic, uniquely enough, elevated the conversation around childcare in our country. The tax proposed by the collaborative generated additional revenue. The Pre-K 4 SA model really kept compensation (pay equity) at the forefront. (Makia Thomas)
  • PIIE researcher Jason Furman says that though it’s difficult to generalize about the relationship between inequality and growth, the “win-win” option for policymakers is improving primary education.
  • LIMITATION: Cities nationally have found collaboration between the education, business and political sectors to be rare, especially when a tax increase needing voter approval is suggested.
  • LIMITATION: Equal pay being at the forefront of conversations neither guarantees pay equity nor ensures legal penalties will be issued to non-compliant employers.


  • New York City and other places around the country use special tax districts. New Jersey actually has within state regulations that if you are a pre-K teacher, there’s pay parity within state school districts. It’s like state regulations. (Makia Thomas)
  • LIMITATION: It is already illegal to pay an individual less because of gender, race, religious affiliation, etc., yet it still persists.
  • LIMITATION: Corporate leaders, who have an over-sized influence upon state and federal policies, often don’t see pay equity as a problem, believing rather that people get ahead (in pay, raises, etc.) based on merit because they believe discrimination is non-existent.
  • LIMITATION: Most corporate leaders who do acknowledge pay inequity, often believe their status quo efforts to address the issue are sufficient, whether they are or not.
  • LIMITATION: Harvard University researcher Stefanie Stantcheva says lawmakers, who tend to be predominantly male, richer, whiter, and more conservative than the general population, “believe in the American Dream, pull yourself up by the bootstraps mythos and look down upon policies put in place to deal with structural inequalities.” 



Be careful what you measure, because what you measure is what matters. Employers often pick the metrics that are really easy to influence so they can avoid the ones that are harder. We have organizations that are tracking retention, for example. I say, “Great. Are you tracking retention by manager?” And they’re like, “What do you mean?” Maybe Billy is responsible for 60% of the churn of your women and your people of color. Do you even know that? Because they don’t want to get rid of top-performer Billy, they let Billy just churn out all the Black people, churn out all the women and they’re not being successful. People don’t leave companies, they leave their managers. (Denise Hamilton)


Why would I teach people to negotiate against me (the company)? Teach them to empower themselves and to enter into these conversations from a position of strength. If I’m an employer, my interests are not served if my people feel taken advantage of. That’s a short-term win, but it’s a long-term disaster. Case in point, the Great Resignation. If your people feel taken advantage of, they feel unsupported, they are two steps from being out the door. (Denise Hamilton)


Employers, make sure you’re really looking at your pay structures. Make sure you don’t have incentives in there for cheating people, for underpaying people. And if you find it, correct it. (Denise Hamilton)


You may be at a 9.75 in your craft and you can be a 1.382 in inclusion. Just because you’re CFO and you know how to do the finances, you know how to make Sprockets, does not mean you are going to be good at [inclusion]. It is a totally different skill. So, I encourage people in C-leadership to get a mentor, somebody that’s going to help you widen out that myopic view that you have so you can make better decisions. You can start to notice things that maybe you didn’t see before.


I encourage every reader to become engaged in the legislative process. Stay up to date with the bills that impact you. Call legislative and committee offices during the legislative session to voice your support or opposition to bills. Call your representative to find out how you can make your voice heard during the committee process when bills are scheduled for a public hearing. That is your opportunity to have your opinion heard on issues before the committee and could significantly impact the outcome of those bills. You can also become part of organizations that advocate for issues you care about. Your voice is your power! If you don’t like something, speak up and work to change it. You hold the power, so use it for the greater good. Together, we can make a difference! (State Rep. Senfronia Thompson)


We’re seeing right now the Great Resignation. I call it the Great Renegotiation because I’m encouraging all the women I know, all the people of color I know, to go in there and ask for the moon, ask for the stars, ask for the rainbows, because they are so desperate to retain employees that it’s possible, if we let it, this can be a correction point of getting wages up higher. So, whatever you’re making now, go in and ask for $5k more, especially if you’re thinking about quitting. Go ask for $12K more. Go ask for another week of vacation, for them to pay for you to go finish your degree, or to get a certification of some kind. This is a time to ask for it because you’re more valuable than you’ve ever been before, especially if you had any institutional knowledge. I hope that this can be a place that we can kind of level set and correct some of this gap, but we’ve got to have courage to ask for it. (Denise Hamilton)


Pay equity is about creating parity for women, period. Supporting women-owned small businesses is just to me, the easiest way to start that effort. And if you work at a company and you can bring in small businesses to work with that large corporation, you can help teach and support that negotiation. I remember, somebody brought me into an organization and they were like, “Can you do this service?” And I was like, “Sure,” and I sent in my proposal. A sister from that corporation picked up the phone,  called me and said, “Honey, you need to add a zero to your bid because they usually pay X amount for this service.” Now, what did it cost her to tell me that? But it changed everything for me. (Denise Hamilton)


(Source: Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Gender wage inequality in the United States: Causes and solutions to improve family well-being and economic growth – Equitable Growth)

Policies that increase pay transparency, combat discrimination, and ensure that data about pay differences is collected will help address some of the “unexplainable” differences in men and women’s wages. Here are five potential policy solutions.

Fair Pay Act
The Fair Pay Act, reintroduced by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), would expand prohibitions against sex discrimination from “equal work” to “equivalent work,” clarify that any differences in pay must be justified by legitimate business interests, protect workers who share their pay information, and increase damages available to victims of wage discrimination.

Paycheck Fairness Act
The Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in 2017, requires employers to prove that differences in pay were a result of business-related factors. This rule would protect workers who disclose pay to other workers, increase employer transparency regarding pay inequities, and hold employers accountable for pay discriminations.

Workplace Advancement Act
The Workplace Advancement Act, introduced by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Rep. Stephen Knight (R-CA), would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act by protecting workers from retaliation for discussing their wages if they do so in order to discover pay inequity among co-workers.

Eliminate questions about past wages during the application process
Policies that ban employers from asking about wages earned at prior jobs will mitigate the impact of pay discrimination experienced in the past by preventing it from carrying forward to future earnings. The states of Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Delaware, and New York, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, and the cities of San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans have all passed measures to ban the practice.

Improve data availability on wages by gender
Other countries have laws requiring employers to collect data on their employees’ wages to determine whether male and female employees are being paid differently for the same work. The collection of wage data by gender, race, and ethnicity is necessary to measure what is actually happening and to assess whether policies intended to address gender wage inequality are working, as well as to ensure compliance with those policies.

Child Care for Working Families Act
The Child Care for Working Families Act, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), gives guaranteed childcare assistance to families earning up to 150 percent of their state’s median income. In addition, it limits families’ childcare spending to 7 percent of household income and promises improved wages for childcare providers. This policy, which would be paid for by employee and employer payroll contributions, has the potential to create 2.3 million new jobs and increase childcare providers’ wages by 26 percent.

The FAMILY Act, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), outlines a national, gender-neutral social insurance program that would fund two-thirds of a parent’s wage for up to 12 weeks of paid leave. The program, which will be paid for by employee and employer payroll contributions, sets qualifications and eligibility conditions that will be determined by language of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Research indicates that a national paid leave program boosts women’s wages by 7 percent.3

The Trump administration’s proposed plan
The Trump administration proposed a plan to create a federal paid parental leave program, administered through states’ unemployment insurance systems, that provides parents up to six weeks of paid leave. While this idea grants new parents the ability to take time off without any employment consequences, it would deduct from their Social Security retirement income, thus leaving parents at risk of financial insecurity when their retirement approaches. Unemployment insurance systems are already extremely underfunded and would struggle to implement such a program. In addition, this plan prioritizes parental leave for a new child, thus ignoring family caregiving needs.

The Schedules That Work Act
The Schedules That Work Act, written by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), puts forth protocols—such as requiring clear scheduling expectations from the start of employment—that allow workers to request flexibility from their employers, while protecting workers from financial retaliation or employment discrimination. This policy will allow workers to manage family care needs without risking their income and financial stability.5

State-specific paid family leave policies
Five states—California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and Washington state—and the District of Columbia have instituted paid family leave laws, though Washington state and D.C. will not activate the law until January 1, 2020. Studies conducted by Jean Kimmel of Western Michigan University and Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes of San Diego State University found that access to parental leave correlated with a 7 percent increase in women’s earnings and shrank motherhood wage inequality by two-thirds. Research on California’s paid family leave system found it has increased mothers’ work hours by 10 percent to 17 percent.6

Collect data to understand problems facing workers of color
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, overseen by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, prohibits employers from discriminating employers based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Collecting firm-specific employment and pay data would allow the EEOC to better enforce Title VII, but it is not currently collected. In September 2016, the EEOC did announce it would begin collecting summary pay data and aggregate hours worked by pay bands, gender, race, and ethnicity for businesses with more than 100 employees. In August 2017, however, the Trump administration issued a stay before it got underway.

The INSPIRE Women Act and other legislation to increase the representation of women in STEM fields
Legislation such as Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers, or INSPIRE Women Act, passed in February 2017, as well as Sen. Catherine Cortez Mastro (D-NV) and Rep. Jackie Rosen (D-NV)’s Code Like a Girl Act and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY)’s Women and Minorities in STEM Booster Act of 2017, are all examples of legislation intended to increase the representation of women in fields where they are currently underrepresented.

Increase college affordability
Expansion of the federal Pell Grants program would make college more affordable for students, as they do not have to be repaid. In addition, many states and cities are initiating various programs aimed at making community colleges tuition free for low-income students. Tennessee, Oregon, Rhode Island, and San Francisco already allow residents who qualify as low income to attend community college for free. In addition, beginning in 2017, all City University of New York and State University of New York two- and four-year universities will allow students from households making less than $125,000 annually to attend tuition free.

On-campus childcare for student parents
The number of student parents enrolled in two- and four-year universities has been on the rise. To keep these students enrolled through graduation, states are investing in on-campus childcare centers for students and faculty. In California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington state, 70 percent of all public universities have campus childcare available for students. The investment in on-campus childcare can result in positive returns of a better-educated workforce, higher wages, and greater innovation.

Funding for programs such as Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations
The federal Women in Apprenticeships and Nontraditional Occupations program provides resources to diversify the gender distribution of apprenticeship programs, which tend to be male-dominated. Funding for it should remain in order to maintain current apprenticeship programs and create new programs to decrease the gender differences. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a $1.9 million investment to “recruit, train, and retain women in high-skill occupations” in a way to increase diversity within the manufacturing, technology, energy, and construction industries. The Trump administration canceled many of these contracts and pledges shortly after President Donald Trump took office. The 2018 and 2019 federal budgets eliminated this grant program funding, which would hurt the administration’s own goal of creating 5 million new apprenticeships over the span of 5 years.

Expand the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE grant-making program
Expanding the NSF’s ADVANCE grant-making program to provide competitive grants to universities to brainstorm processes that promote gender equity in STEM fields, which are highly male-dominated, would increase the representation of women in such fields and encourage pay equity between men and women.

Fully implement the Obama administration’s overtime rule
Full implementation of the Department of Labor’s already promulgated overtime-expansion rule, which would increase the minimum salary for workers exempt from overtime standards to $47,476, would address some of the gender wage gap because the majority of affected workers are women: One-quarter of all mothers and almost 33 percent of single working mothers have salaries at this level. Implementation at the federal level has been stalled by lawsuits by 21 states and more than 55 business groups, but some states have taken action. California, for example, set the threshold to $45,760 for salaried workers, and their wages are linked to the minimum wage, thus the two wages grow in accordance with one another.

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...