News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

April 20, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Waiting for gender pay equity? Only 47 more years to go

TERRE HAUTE — In 1963, Congress passed the landmark Equal Pay Act to recognize and remedy the shameful gap between women’s and men’s wages. Back then, women earned 59 cents to every $1 earned by men.

Nearly a half-century later, the separation has narrowed, but it isn’t close to zero. Since the middle of this decade, female workers in full-time jobs have averaged 77 cents for every $1 earned by full-time male workers.

A different way to view that disparity is to gauge how long the average woman must work to earn the same amount her male counterpart earns in a year. The magic number for 2009 was reached just Tuesday, which explains why women’s advocacy groups marked it as national Equal Pay Day.

Almost an extra four months to reach parity.

For African-American women, it’s worse. They earn just under 68 cents for a man’s dollar. Hispanic women face an even wider gap, earning a pre-Equal Pay Act 58 cents.

In Indiana, according to a report released this week, the disparity looks like full-time men being paid an average of $44,906 per year while full-time women are paid $31,935.

That report, by the National Partnership for Women & Families in conjunction with the American Association of University Women, included some additional inventive calculations: “Without the gender-based wage gap, Indiana’s women could afford food for another 2.2 years, mortgage and utility payments for eleven more months, or family health insurance premiums for five more years.”

Things are even more unbalanced in Illinois, which ranks 41st in the nation in pay equity, with men averaging $50,022 and women $36,968 — or 74 cents on the male dollar. Wyoming is the worst. Women there are near 1960s levels, earning 64 cents for every $1 earned by men.

Many people need no more evidence than decades of inequality to call for further remedies, but a segment of the population still clings to the idea that most women’s work is tangential, supplementary, not as important as men’s. That idea is not only outdated, it is wrong.

In 1964, not even one-third of the work force was made up of women. But the ratio has changed over the decades, and the recession – and its accompanying layoffs in traditionally male fields – has transformed women into the majority (50.3 percent) of the nation’s work force. Further, a recent study by the Center for American Progress found that two-thirds of U.S. breadwinners or co-breadwinners are female.

In other words, American families don’t need the salaries and wages of women for luxuries and treats, they need them to live.

As Linda Merc wrote in an online essay about Equal Pay Day, “With more women in the workforce, and more families reliant upon women’s paychecks to make ends meet, it’s clear to see how all of us – women and men – have such a huge stake in eliminating the wage gap.”

The national director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, Merc also wrote, “At the rate we’re going, we won’t see pay equity until the year 2057. Women and their families just cannot afford to wait that long! Congress must tighten wage disparity laws now to ensure equity for every worker.”

One chamber of Congress already has moved along legislation that would ensure just that.

In January 2009, the House of Representatives passed the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Senate’s version, S. 182, awaits attention. So far, despite Sen. Christopher Dodd taking over leadership on the bill from its original sponsor – former Sen. Hillary Clinton – the legislation hasn’t been scheduled for a vote.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would make employers prove, with documented evidence, that wage discrepancies between men and women who do the same work are based on solid reasons that have nothing to do with gender. As women have discovered, the 1963 act does not do that.

The new law also would mandate expanded wage data collection by the EEOC and provide education and training for employers and workers to help prevent inadvertent or deliberate discrimination. So, too, the law would prohibit retaliation against employees who share wage information or dig into their employers’ wage practices, and it would treat gender-based wage discrimination the same as racial or ethnic-based discrimination, allowing similar compensation and remedies for both.

Obviously, the value of women’s work has increased since the last big fair wage act; 59 to 77 is movement in the right direction. But any disparity at all is not good enough.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, highlighted in a March 29 Newsweek story about women’s continuing struggle for wage parity, are depressing.

“… a year out of school, despite having earned higher college GPAs in every subject, young women will take home, on average across all professions, just 80 percent of what their male colleagues do,” Newsweek reported.

 As for the old saw about women’s wages being lower because they take time out to have children, Newsweek found, “a decade out of college, full-time working women who haven’t had children still make 77 cents on the male dollar.”

Perhaps most sobering, the magazine reported that the four most common female jobs today – low-paying but employing 43 percent of all women – are secretary, registered nurse, teacher and cashier.

“Swap ‘domestic help’ for nurse and you’d be looking at the top female jobs from 1960,” Newsweek’s reporters wrote, “back when want ads were segregated by gender.”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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