Pay Equity Persists As An Issue

Tuesday is Pay Equity Day, the day when women’s average earnings for the year 2013 catch up with men’s average earnings for this same year. In other words, women, on average, had to work 15-plus months to earn an amount of money equal to what men earned in 12 months.

Women have gained ground over the years. In 1982 the disparity was 59 cents to the dollar earned by men. It has gradually risen the past few years to an average of 77-79 cents, (77-79 percent) as the disparity varies from state to state.

The state with the best record is not a state, actually. Washington, D.C., not surprisingly, has a ratio of 90 percent. A number of states (16) range in the 80 percent category, with New York State achieving 84 percent. Almost all of the other states range from 79 percent down to 70 percent. Only two states rank lower: Louisiana at 67 percent and Wyoming at 64 percent.

President John F. Kennedy, as part of his New Frontier program, signed into law the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963. It stipulated equal pay for equal work, i.e., women had to be paid the same as men for doing the same job. However, far too many women in academia and elsewhere discovered they were being paid less – sometimes considerably less – for performing the exact same work. Many of them filed and won lawsuits based on discrimination, most of the suits worth thousands of dollars.

In 1998, Lilly Ledbetter discovered that her employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., had been, for many years, paying her less than her male counterparts for performing the exact same work – thousands of dollars less. She filed a lawsuit which she won and which Goodyear contested. She took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court where the decision in her favor was upheld. In recognition of this celebrated case, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law on January 29, 2009.

The wage gap is greater for minority women. One study discloses that for every dollar men earn, women earn an average 77 cents, with African American women averaging 69 cents and Hispanic women earning only 58 cents. This wage gap creates serious problems for the families of the minority groups, as the women often are the head of the family and the only wage earner. The level of poverty created by this disparity in turn creates serious social problems and challenges for our communities, straining budgets at all government levels.

National AAUW recently published the results of a study undertaken on the pay equity topic, “Graduation to a Pay Gap.” The study reveals that one year out of college women who were working full time were paid, on average, just 82 percent of their male peers’ salaries. The pay gap shrinks after controlling for hours, occupation, college major, employment sector and other factors. It shrinks, but does not disappear. About one-third of the gap cannot be explained.

Men tend to major in fields such as engineering and computer science which pay more than the education and social sciences in which women tend to major. However, that is not necessarily the full story: among business majors, women were paid just over $38,000, while men were paid just over $45,000. In the teaching professions, women were paid 89 percent of their male counterparts. In business and management occupations, women were paid 89 percent of their male counterparts. In sales, the percent for women falls to just 77 percent. These figures hold for the 2 largest economic sectors – for profit and government.

How do we explain these differences? Biases against women in many traditional male fields continue to keep women underpaid despite the emphasis on gender discrimination. One immediate effect of the pay gap is the student loan debt burden. Women pay the same amount as men for their college courses and degrees. Yet, they do not reap the same rewards economically as their male peers. Thus, their debt burden is higher and thus more difficult to repay, leaving women more behind economically throughout their lives.

The salary/wage discrepancy throughout women’s working lives carries over into their retirement years, with lower social security income and lower pension benefits. Since women tend to live longer than men, this creates a serious economic problem for society at large, as the women age and can no longer care for themselves.

A significant percentage of the older female population was never or only briefly employed outside the home, choosing instead to serve their families as homemakers, according to the dictates of the mores of the times, with the myriad tasks involved in this career. Many may have retirement provisions through their spouse’s retirement benefits; others may have little or no benefits. Again, society must bear at least part of the burden of their care in their declining years.

Pay equity is an economic issue affecting every citizen in our society and each one of us must be part of its solution. Four restaurants will join AAUW Jamestown in noting Pay Equity Day, offering a 20 percent discount for women on lunchtime menus: Cibo, Babalu Cafe, Shawbuck’s the Press Room and Labyrinth Press Company. The Landmark Restaurant will offer the discount during the dinner hour.

Please support them and thank them for supporting women.

B. Dolores Thompson is the AAUW Jamestown public policy chair.