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on Pay Equity
Pay Equity
Examining the “Women’s Choices” Theory

Some argue that the wage gap is merely the result of women's choices -- mainly women taking time out of the workforce to have children.

What's the real story? Of course time in the workplace, education and experience all play a role. But there is more to the wage gap than "women's choices."

Let's not ignore the evidence on unfair pay. We cannot ignore a mountain of evidence documenting that a wage gap exists even when comparing women and men who have the same job, education, qualifications, and time in the workforce. Consider scores of studies such as:

• a survey of public relations professionals, showing that women with less than 5 years of experience make $29,726 while men with the same amount of experience make $48,162. For P.R. professionals in the 5-10 year category, women earn $41,141 while men earn $47,888. In the 10-15 year category, women earn $44,941 and men earn $54,457. In the 15-20 year range, women earn $49,270 and men earn $69,120.

• a salary survey of purchasers demonstrating that for professionals in the field of purchasing with 3 or fewer years experience, women earn $35,900 and men earn $47,700. For purchasers with 4-6 years experience, men earn $52,100 while women earn $38,300. Female purchasers who have 7 to ten years of experience earn $42,300 while their male counterparts earn $56,400. For those with 11-15 years experience, women earn $43,500 and men earn $63,400.

• a study of women in the telecommunications industry documenting a gap even when education was the same. For example, among video programmers, women with advanced degrees earn 64.6% of their male counterparts, and women with college degrees earn 80%.

Evidence of wage discrimination can be found in Department of Labor audits. The DOL conducts routine compliance reviews of companies that are federal contractors. Their findings include violations by companies such as:

  • Texaco, which agreed to pay $3.1 million to 186 female employees who were found to be systematically underpaid compared to their male counterparts.
  • Trigon Blue Cross Blue Shield, which paid $264,901 in back pay to 34 women managers who were paid less than male managers of equal qualifications and seniority.
  • US Airways, which agreed to pay $390,000 in back pay and salary adjustments to 30 women managers who were paid less than their male coworkers.
  • Corestates Financial Corp., which agreed to pay nearly $1.5 million in back wages and salary adjustments to women and minorities. The Labor Department found instances in which employees with more seniority or better performance reviews were paid less because they were women or minorities.
  • Other recent settlements include those by American University, American Greetings Corporation, Aramark Corporation, Fairfax Hospital, Marriott Corporation, and others.

Let's not ignore the women who face real-life experiences with discrimination. In a class action suit, more than 900 women recently filed claims of bias against Merrill Lynch -- some of them were told that they were paid less than men because the men had families to support. Universities in California, Idaho, and Georgia have all settled cases of bias. After conducting an in-depth study, MIT recently admitted discriminating against female professors and moved to change their practices. Private companies such as Ingles Grocery Stores and Home Depot have also settled cases. In May, Kodak conducted an internal study of its pay practices and voluntarily provided $13 million to women and minorities after finding discrepancies based on sex or race. In June, the EEOC sued PETCO Animal Supplies in California on the basis that it paid female managers in its East Bay stores substantially less than their male counterparts.

Individual wage discrimination cases are hard to prove and very costly to pursue, and we need better enforcement and stronger laws. But in the meantime, we cannot ignore documented cases of discrimination. Some of the women who fight and win don't have children, so taking time out of the workforce is not an issue.

Men recognize that wage discrimination exists, too. According to a 1998 survey by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, 43% of men believe that a major reason why women do not advance to top-level executive and professional positions is because men don't want women to get ahead in the workplace. This survey echoes previous polling data on perceptions of inequalities.

What's the 74% figure really all about? The median earnings of women working full-time, year-round are 74% of the median earnings of men working full-time, year-round. Part time workers do not affect this figure.

For every woman, the wage gap is different. The wage gap is affected by many factors, including a woman's race, age, education, occupation, and geographic region. African American women earn 63 cents on the dollar and Hispanic women 54 cents compared to white males, who face no discrimination.

What about the rest of the women? An old figure quoted by opponents of pay equity solutions says that a group of women -- those between 27 and 33 who have never had a child -- earn 98 cents on the dollar. Even if this was true (which means women still earn less than men), where does that leave working women who are younger than 27 or older than 33? This single statistic has been used repeatedly by opponents since 1994, although they leave out scores of more current salary studies and surveys that find unexplained gender wage gaps.

The bottom line: Women know wage discrimination exists. Working women see the outdated attitudes that still exist today. Women are told by managers that men make more because they have families to support. They are asked about their "family-life" in interviews. They are told by employers that women are not capable of doing the "higher paying jobs" such as management. They are ignored or retaliated against when they pursue equal pay through normal company grievance procedures. These are just a few of the many, many real-life examples NCPE hears about.