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Words You'll Hear: 'Substantially Similar'


Now it's time once again for our regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. Today, we're going to hear about the phrase substantially similar. That term is at the heart of a new law in California that requires employers to pay women the same as men when they do work that is substantially similar. It's called the new Fair Pay Act. It kicked in on January 1, and NPR's Laura Sydell is here to tell us more about it. Hi, Laura.


MARTIN: So what exactly does substantially similar mean? And how does this actually advance this whole issue of equal pay for equal work?

SYDELL: So substantially similar is crucial to this law. And what it means is - let's take an example. For - in hotels, you have housekeepers, and you have janitors. Usually the janitors are men, and the housekeepers are women. The housekeepers tend to make less than the janitors, but really their work is substantially similar. Maybe the janitors are the ones who scrub the floors in the ballroom, and the housekeepers are the ones vacuuming the rugs in the room, but they really shouldn't be paid differently.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that there's another phrase that keeps popping up in connection with this, and that phrase is bona fide. So what does that mean in relation to this law?

SYDELL: There's a defense. You can have a bona fide business reason for paying men and women differently in a particular situation. So, for example, say, you have a man and a woman. They're both working in the IT department. The man has a master's. The woman doesn't. That would be a bona fide reason probably.

MARTIN: But, Laura, I wanted to ask you to tell us the story about how this - how this law suddenly got the wind under its sales because this issue of pay equity has been kicking around for years now. So why now?

SYDELL: Well, Hannah-Beth Jackson, who was the author of the law, had indeed been trying to get a law like this passed for years. When Patricia Arquette won the Oscar for "Boyhood," which was a movie that focused very much on her character, who was a single mom trying to raise a family, she got up there, and she made a statement about pay equity at the Oscars.


PATRICIA ARQUETTE: We have fought for everybody else's equal rights. It's our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.


SYDELL: Hannah-Beth Jackson said that was the wind in the sales that got this passed. As soon as she said that, finally, she was able to get it through the state legislature - not only get it through. It had bipartisan support, and it got the support of the California Chamber of Commerce.

MARTIN: Well, why is that? Is it because people saw the movie, and they thought, oh, I get it now? Or - what do you think it is that made the difference?

SYDELL: (Laughter) It's just the star power of Hollywood, really. You know, it got people talking. And Patricia Arquette actually did get involved. And she went out there, and she talked. And, of course, she can use Twitter, and she can use social media, and she can reach people. And people began to realize we've had to pay equity laws on the books for decades, and it hasn't solved the problem. We need to do something more.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, how is this going to be enforced?

SYDELL: So, primarily, it will be enforced by women themselves coming forward. They'll be able to go to their employer and say something. If the problem isn't addressed, they can now take it to court. And in court, if they win, they'll be able to get their back wages and their attorneys' fees paid, but the state isn't going to go in and enforce it.

MARTIN: That's NPR's digital culture correspondent Laura Sydell, who talked to us about the new Fair Pay Act in California that requires that men and women doing substantially similar work be paid the same. Laura, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SYDELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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