When It Comes to Pay, It’s Still a Man’s World
Thirty-five years after the Equal Pay Act outlawed gender-based wage discrimination, working women still face a passel of inequities come payday, say those fighting for equal wages for women.
Employers are still telling women that men deserve more pay because they have families to support, ignoring the growing role of women’s wages in sustaining most U.S. families. Women still face lingering suspicion about whether they are really in the work force to stay. And women are penalized financially for taking time off to care for children.
Thanks to these and other payday realities, women typically earn 74 cents for every dollar earned by men--just a 15-cent improvement in 35 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As companies nationwide prepare to open their doors today to millions of girls for Take Our Daughters to Work Day, women’s rights advocates lament that females entering the work force early in the next century are still likely to step into a gender gap.
That breach, they say, is the result not only of the kind of overt “unequal pay for equal work” discrimination addressed by the 1963 statute, but also of a lingering societal notion that work in female-dominated fields is not as valuable as “man’s work.”
But pay-equity advocates say they are seeing more movement now than they’ve seen in years. Two equal-pay measures are pending in Congress, including one strongly supported by President Clinton, and grass-roots support for events focusing on equal pay is growing.
“There’s no question that this has become a political issue of higher profile this year,” said Patrick Dorton, an aide to U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Harkin has introduced a bill, almost certain to generate heated debate, that would outlaw wage discrimination for comparable jobs. Harkin’s measure, which was first introduced in 1995 but never made it out of committee, would make it illegal to pay women less than men for jobs that require “comparable skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.”
Women’s rights advocates say wages in jobs typically held by women are consistently lower than wages in male-dominated fields.
“Those occupations that are more dominated by women, like nursing, education and social work, are among the higher-wage professional jobs for women, but are still lower paid on average than male-dominated fields . . . like police and fire,” said Karen Hill-Scott of the Los Angeles Women’s Foundation, who has studied pay equity for women in Los Angeles County.
On the eve of Equal Pay Day, a nationwide event held April 3 to focus attention on pay inequities, Vice President Al Gore announced White House support for legislation proposed by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) that would beef up the Equal Pay Act.
That bill would allow women who are paid less because of their gender to seek compensatory and punitive damages from offending employers. The current act allows only for back pay and court costs.
Women’s rights advocates and labor and political officials say this represents the first time any administration has strongly supported boosting the equal pay law since the original measure took effect.
But not everyone agrees that stronger laws are needed.
Randel Johnson, vice president of labor policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argues that “there are certain societal factors out there that account for” at least part of the wage gap.
“More women than men take time off to care for children,” he said, adding: “Less experience does tend to translate into less pay.”
Marie C. Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, which sponsors Take Our Daughters to Work Day, said attitudes like that create a “double bind” for women.
“We’re told that if we take time off, the pay gap increases,” said Wilson, who has been active in women’s economic issues for more than 25 years. “But on the other hand . . . we yell and scream at women in our society about not raising our children.”
Of the two measures pending in Congress, the Harkin bill on comparable jobs comes closer to addressing the issue of so-called occupational segregation, said Susan Bianchi-Sand, executive director of the National Committee on Pay Equity. She said more than 60% of working women nationwide are clustered in just three types of jobs: sales (largely retail), service (including nursing and social work) and administrative (including clerical).
Even though the Equal Pay Act “doesn’t help women in jobs where there are no men,” Bianchi-Sand said, it’s “very important” that the administration supported the Daschle bill to strengthen the act.
“There is evidence that even in equal jobs, the law is not being applied,” she said.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the Equal Pay Act, received about 1,100 gender-wage complaints in the last fiscal year. Only one such complaint led to a lawsuit in 1997. The agency has filed about 50 suits under the act since 1986.
David Grinberg, an EEOC spokesman, cautioned against concluding from those numbers that there is no problem.
“If you have women in low-level jobs, they’re sometimes afraid that if they file a charge with us, they’re going to lose their jobs,” he said.
Johnson, of the Chamber of Commerce, said his organization has not taken an official stance on either the Daschle or Harkin measures.
But he noted that Title 7, the broad federal statute that outlaws discrimination based on sex, race, national origin or religion, was strengthened in 1991, and added that “it certainly is adequate to address any situation . . . where an employer is acting as a bad guy.”
Johnson said that in measures like the two pending in Congress, “the authors are trying to implement a social agenda, to achieve equal pay across the board, even when unequal levels of pay are caused by various proper factors.”
But several women’s rights and pay-equity advocates argued that the major factors affecting unequal pay have more to do with outdated attitudes than conventional marketplace factors.
Hill-Scott recalled a recent conversation with a woman in management at a pharmaceutical firm.
“She had someone at the VP level say that [a man] was paid more money because he had a family to support,” Hill-Scott said.
Bianchi-Sand said comments like that are “not uncommon.” She recalled a recent case in which a woman being interviewed for a job was “questioned extensively” about the stability of her fiance’s job.
Such questions are often translated into lower pay offers for women, Bianchi-Sand said. Such employers think, “Why should I be paying this person full scale when she has another income and his is probably higher?”
Another force that helps perpetuate the gender gap, advocates say, is the so-called undervaluing of “women’s work.”
Karen Nussbaum, head of the AFL-CIO’s working women’s department, cites child-care workers. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 1996 show that the average child-care worker earned less than the average parking-lot attendant--$6.12 per hour versus $6.38.
But no one had to tell Chandra Harris that child-care workers don’t get the pay or respect they deserve.
“We’re still not recognized by the community as professionals, so they think, ‘Why should we pay them as professionals?’ ” said Harris, who switched from data entry to child care and now teaches toddlers at the Cal-Tot Child Care Center in downtown Los Angeles.
She bristles at the notion that parking lot attendants could be earning more than child-care workers and predicts that if more men were in child care, wages would be higher.
Despite the continuing inequities, women such as Hill-Scott see the current political activities as a signal that pay equity is “an idea whose time already has come. Now politics is catching up.”
The AFL-CIO’s Nussbaum, who formerly directed the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau, said bills are pending in six states to address the wage gap. In California, state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), who chairs the Industrial Relations Committee, has introduced a bill to provide “pay and benefit equity” for most part-time workers, a classification that in California is 60% female.
“Now there’s much more interest and concern,” said Nussbaum. “There’s been a wide variety of things that say that we can’t go [another] 35 years without solving this one.”
* CONFIDENT GIRLS: A new book offers lessons on raising strong daughters. E1
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The Wage Gap
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks the median weekly earnings for hundreds of job classifications, from logger to respiratory therapists. Figures for 1997 show that women typically earn 74 cents for every dollar earned by men.
What Women Earn for Every Dollar Earned by Men
Financial officer: 62
Printing machine operator: 68
Insurance adjuster: 72
Computer analyst: 89
Registered nurse: 91
Total full-time work force age 16 and over: 74