Thursday, September 9, 2010

A woman's worth: the long road toward equal pay for work of equal value

There has long been a worldwide effort to establish equal pay for comparable worth. While studying European Employment Law last semester in Dublin, Ireland, my eyes were opened to the fact that the European Community (EC) and countries like Australia have required both public and private employers to base salaries on equal pay for work of equal value. These requirements have been in place for almost two decades now. In a fact sheet on wages of various occupations published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, new analysis shows that men out-earn women in nearly every occupation for which data are available.

As a woman who has been in the workforce for over 40 years, I have seen the incremental improvements in my wage gap, but I never stopped to calculate what that amounted to in real terms, until I dug a bit deeper into recent data and found some startling commentary.

Weary of the prospect of getting paid less than my male counterparts in the legal profession, I decided to evaluate the current state of equal pay for equal or comparable work. Many would argue that seniority, reduced hours for child care, and maternity leave account for the difference in pay that a man gets compared to a woman. But studies do not support this argument. The large wage gap between men and women is more likely due to significant differences between wages paid for traditionally "men's jobs" and those paid for "women's jobs." Comparable worth is a tool in the struggle to bring women's economic positions up to the level of men's.

In the United States however, comparable work policies have lagged seriously behind. Even though national conferences for mayors and governors have given a token nod toward women by passing resolutions supporting the notion of comparable worth, we have a long way to go sisters! Roughly 20 states have begun to make comparable-worth salary adjustments for their employees.

The gender wage gap and occupational segregation – men primarily working in occupations by other men, and women primarily working with other women – are persistent features of the US labor market. During 2009, median weekly earnings for female full-time workers were $657, compared with $819 per week for men, a gender wage ratio of 80.2 percent (or a gender wage gap of 19.8 percent). Women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations, whether they work in occupations predominantly done by women, occupations predominantly done by men, or occupations with a more even mix of men and women.

Economist Evelyn Murphy, President of The Wage Project, estimated in an article that over a lifetime (47 years of full-time work) this gap amounts to a loss in wages for a woman of $700,000 for a high school graduate; $1.2 million for a college graduate and $2 million for a professional school graduate. (Source: Census Bureau reports and data, Current Population Reports, Median Earning of Workers 15 Years Old and Over by Work Experience and Sex. 
Updated September 2009)

In a briefing paper on the best and worst economies for women, The Institute for Women’s Policy Research states that,

While women's wages have risen in all states, in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars, since 1989, the typical full-time woman worker does not make as much as the typical man in any state. At the present rate of progress, it will take 50 years to close the wage gap nationwide.

So, it has been more than depressing for me that not only will I not see the gap closed during my work life, but I might not see the gap closed in my lifetime. It’s not all bad news, though. One of the first bills that President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. See prior post. The Fair Pay Act takes effect retroactively, however, employers may still be slow to increase the salaries of female employees until the lawsuits begin to fly. This will take courage on the part of women, but the groundwork has been put in place.

There are also comparable-worth lessons we can learn from the successes of not only our foreign neighbors in Europe, but in the U.S. as well. I rarely think of Minnesota as a bell-weather state when it comes to public policy, but in the equal pay for work of equal value, they most certainly are. As early at the mid-90’s, it was the only state requiring all its localities to develop and implement a comparable-worth/pay equity plan for their employees. Over thirteen hundred local governmental bodies participated. See, Incomparable Worth by Steven E. Rhoads, Cambridge University Press 1993.

As the UC Davis Law class of 2011 graduates, each of us will embark on a new career as lawyers. Each of us, male and female, will have an opportunity to practice not only law, but also leadership. I believe that because of our training and understanding of the operation of government, lawyers should shoulder a greater responsibility than other citizens taking leadership roles in our respective communities. We will be the generation of leaders that makes the wage gap disappear.


MRVanegas said...

At first, I was pleasantly surprised to read that even Larry Flynt supports equal rights, and especially, equal pay for women. See his post here:

But then I realized, Mr. Flynt was using his article mainly to blame Gloria Steinem, yet again, for our society's failure to give women their worth. Blaming second-wave and radical feminism for our continued failure to provide women with what they deserve is a cheap trick, indeed.

Alcestis said...

Unfortunately this may be a very long road. What is also disturbing is that this wage gap is not only supported by US labor market, but also in our legal system.

In calculating damages in tort cases, gender-based economic data to determine lost earning capacity has perpetuated the gender worth disparities in our legal system. We are valued less, and receive less in damages, because loss of future earning capacity is calculated to assure that the predictions about the future are tied to present and historical disparities in the work force. Regardless of educational attainment or family socioeconomic background, courts use gender-based economic data that has been collected over decades, and as a result value women less.

Although it is within the court's discretion to use such data, reform is necessary to close the gap between the value of a woman and a man. I hope as change occurs in the labor market, it will be able to penetrate the court's historical unequal treatment of women.