How Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally Views the Gender Pay Gap
In late March, Congresswoman Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) brought together a panel of CEOs, policy experts, and fellow representatives to discuss an issue that, truth be told, many Americans may not associate with the Republican party: Helping women overcome barriers in the workplace.
The panel — the third in a continuing series — occurred in tandem with the Working Group on Women in the 21st Century Workforce, an initiative the Arizona legislator launched in July of 2016 to identify the challenges women face in advancing their careers, establish the root causes of these obstacles, and foster discussion between the public and private sectors to determine the best solutions for them. A former fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force — and the first woman to not only fly a combat mission but to command a fighter squadron in combat — McSally has experienced firsthand what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominated world — and all the obstacles that come with it. It was, in fact, this experience that motivated her to start an initiative dedicated to women in the modern working world in the first place.
Though McSally is using her platform to address the concerns of working women, that does not mean she believes the task force should depend on federal policy to effect change. (McSally's own voting record shows her reluctance to put the matter of equal pay in the hands of the government rather than the private sector; she opposed considering a measure that protected women from legal repercussions related to disclosing their wages and asking employers for explanations regarding pay disparity and voted against a Democratic motion to give women federal protections in demanding equal pay.) Instead, the congresswoman wants to work towards combatting the systemic struggles women face and see how business leaders, educators, experts, and women themselves can forge solutions.
"As part of this working group's mission to dig into the root causes of the barriers that women face, we want to study what businesses have already done to ensure that their female employees can achieve their full potential," McSally said in her opening remarks before the recent panel. “Wherever women succeed, businesses will succeed. The private sector is the innovation engine of our economy and more private sector businesses and organizations than ever are recognizing that training, promoting, and retaining women is essential to their continued competitiveness — and their bottom line."
Following the third installment of the Women in the 21st Century Workforce hearings, Glamour caught up with Rep. McSally to discuss what she's learned since the task force launched (particularly regarding the gender pay gap), what actions she hopes to take to address obstacles, and how she can work with fellow representatives to advance women in their careers.
Glamour: You served in the U.S. Air Force for 26 years and made history for first female combat pilots. As such a trailblazer for women in the military, a world that has long been dominated by men, would you say your experience shaped your commitment to fighting for gender equality in the workplace?
Rep. Martha McSally: Absolutely. I grew up in a family where I was told there were no limitations on me as a girl and I could be anything I wanted to be. It wasn't until I joined the military that I realized that just because I was a woman — just because I had ovaries — I couldn't become a fighter pilot. These structural limitations were the motivation for me becoming a fighter pilot in the first place. I thought I was going to go to medical school, but when I found out these barriers existed, I was driven to prove people wrong. My journey in the military solidified my tireless commitment to making sure girls and women are given the opportunity to meet their full potential and nobody tells them they can’t do something because they’re a girl.
Glamour: Last July, you launched the Working Group on Women in the 21st Century Workforce to join experts and individuals in conversation about what can be done to advance women in the workplace. Since then, what have you learned about the challenges women currently face? How are different groups and individuals, both in the private and public sector, addressing them?
MM:People often talk about the wage gap. There are different ways to measure it, but one of the most common figures is that women earn about 81 cents on the dollar for men. I found that figure measured all jobs for the full year, 35 hours or more — it's not a side by side comparison of a man and woman doing the same job with the same experience and education. Ninety-five cents to a dollar doesn't have any good explanation: There is potential for discrimination and bias, which is illegal. But for 81 to 95 cents, there are root causes to this gap. If we could get a better understanding of them, we’ll really be able to move the needle in a meaningful way in order to open more opportunities for women.
There are a number of factors that we identified from experts on this issue. We have women entering lower-paying career fields. Women are still, culturally, the primary caregivers for children, even though we would love to have fathers and mothers share responsibility. More single heads of household are women. For women starting families, there’s more need for flexibility in the years between giving birth and their children being school-age. Getting access to affordable daycare is a challenge for women at all ends of the spectrum, and women will leave the workforce (even though they don’t want to) because child care costs are higher than their salary. We’ve also learned that some career fields don’t offer flexibility for employees. They value face time and who can work the most hours of the day. That often leads to women falling off the ladder because they’re trying to meet the responsibilities of their family commitments.
As we’re looking at these issues, these 81 to 95 cent on the dollar issues, let me say that not everything takes an act of Congress to fix. And that’s not our approach—that everything is going to be fixed with legislation. It’s important in our role as leaders that we use our platform to address issues, to address barriers, to identify best practices for overcoming these challenges with businesses small and large. Maybe there are some public policy issues that we need to address. Maybe some of them are at the federal level and some are at the state or local level.
Glamour: To that point, your colleague Rep. Luke Messer has noted that the answer to advancing women in the workplace is not more regulations or "one-size-fits-all” government programs. What kind of role do you think the legislative branch should have? What actions would you want to take in your role as a congresswoman?
MM: Part of what we’re doing is to address barriers women face, identify potential public policy solutions, and ask if there is an appropriate federal role or not. One thing Congress should look into is the child care tax credit. It has not been updated in years and there is some legislation out there that increases that. Because it’s a federal tax credit, that’s one area with potential for federal policy. There is also the potential for action related to flexibility. Our labor laws are outdated and they don’t just impact women. There’s another piece of legislation that, instead of tying their hands to always provide overtime in cash, gives employers flexibility to provide comp time. This way, if an employee knows they have an upcoming commitment, they can work extra hours ahead of time to free themselves up. As we have additional hearings, there are other opportunities we may look into. What we don’t want to do is turn a good idea into a federal mandate. The unintended consequences of that may hurt small businesses. You end up with fewer jobs available, and that hurts women and men in the workforce.
Glamour: I spoke with Senator Catherine Cortez Masto from Nevada recently and she mentioned that the women in the Senate will meet socially not to talk politics but to cultivate friendly relationships so they can better work together on legislation. Do women in the House take similar actions? How has that affected how you work with representatives across party lines?
MM: I don’t participate in anything formal regarding that, but I am in a bipartisan workout group in the morning that includes men and women. We talk about many things as we’re sweating in our workout gear, and it helps build friendships. Last year I was on the women’s softball team, so those early morning practices were another place to build friendship and camaraderie. There is a bipartisan women’s caucus that does exist, but I confess, I haven’t been involved with it. For me, it’s more informal. I’m always looking for people on the other side of the aisle for any initiative I’m sponsoring — men and women — to move things forward. And once a year, both sides visit the Women in Military Service for America Memorial and participate in honoring the women who made the ultimate sacrifice and those that are continuing to serve. Things like that are good initiatives, for everyone. It’s hard to hate up close. The more you get to know each other, the more common ground you can find and the more you can disagree without being disagreeable.
Glamour: On the flip side, I know in discussions surrounding the American Health Care Act you pushed for maternity and mental health coverage to remain among the essential health benefits. Members of the House Freedom Caucus, however, pushed back against such provisions. If you’re in a place to advance policy that would benefit women in the workplace, how do you hope to work together with members of your own party who might have a history of opposing policies that benefit women?
MM: There are only 22 GOP women in the House, but it wasn't just women working with me as the bill moved forward. We decided to be constructive. As the bill was being worked, ideas and concerns were brought up to make it better and move it in the right direction. That's what the legislative process is. As changes were made to this particular bill, some of my colleagues and I fought to increase the resources to address several things, like maternity, prenatal, and newborn care, and mental health and substance abuse treatment. These are things everybody should care about and resources should be available for families. I was able to lead that initiative, and we were able to allocate additional resources and move the legislation forward. I can only speak for myself: I intend to be constructive and move things in the right direction and address issues — even if there's a [difference of opinion] from legislators who come from different districts, or, in some cases, if it’s a male versus female perspective.
Glamour: In February, Donald Trump announced a cross-border task force with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to advance women entrepreneurs and business leaders and provide them with more opportunities for growth and access to capital. Have you been involved in any of the conversations surrounding this initiative and what measures would you hope to take with it?
MM: I have not been involved, but I definitely want to hear more about it. I think it’s a great initiative, the way it’s being described, anyway. Supporting women entrepreneurs across both sides of the border — who could be against that? Though, in Washington, D.C., we'll find someone who’s against it. I represent a border community. I’m the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee chair. I see both the security challenges of cartels trafficking to our community but also the opportunity for tremendous economic growth on both sides of the border. I see that as the yin and yang of being a border community. It’s something I would love to be involved in but I haven’t been yet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
More From Glamour:
• Happy Theoretical Equal Pay Day, If I'm Being Picky, I Guess
• Catherine Cortez Masto Wants to Bring Diversity to the Senate
• Iceland Is Making Companies Prove Women Get Equal Pay
• The Big Salary Reveal: 12 Real People Discover What the Pay Gap Looks Like
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