Labor spotlight

Salary-wise, it’s still mostly a man’s world

Cartoon: male and female, scale tipped You’ve come a long way.

So claimed a famous advertising campaign promoting a cigarette for women. The line became a national catchphrase in 1968, exploiting the emerging feminist consciousness. The ad images, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, contrasted the self-sufficient and confident “new woman” with the drudgery and repression endured by her predecessors.

Fast forward almost 50 years to March 31, when five members of the U. S. women’s national soccer team filed a wage-discrimination action against the U.S. Soccer Federation. The filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleges that even though the women’s team generated nearly $20 million more revenue last year than the U.S. men’s team, the women are paid about a quarter of what the men earn.

You’ve come a long way. Or maybe not.  

“People overwhelmingly are supportive of equal pay. Unfortunately, we often don’t have enough information to do anything about it,” says Jocelyn Frye of the Center for American Progress. “The most important thing is to start with a clear understanding that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Seventy-nine cents for every $1

Women make up more than half of the professional and technical workforce, yet they are only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, according to the Center for American Progress. Despite high levels of education — women earned more post-secondary degrees than men in 2012–13, according to the U.S. Department of Education — women continue to face a wage gap. They earn, on average, 79 cents for every $1 a man earns in the same job, according to the American Association of University Women. The gap is even worse for women of color, says Frye.

Unequal pay continues to hurt women and their families when they become unemployed, according to the National Women’s Law Center, because unemployment benefits are linked to past — and lower — wages.

The wage gap could translate to as much as half a million dollars over a woman’s working life and lower returns on Social Security, says the Department for Professional Employees at the AFL-CIO. And the Employee Benefit Research Institute says in 2010, women 50 and older received only 56 cents for every dollar received by men in pension and annuity income. Older women also endure a wage gap that continues to grow, write Sarah Jane Glynn and Audrey Powers of the Center for American Progress; in the five years before retirement, the gap jumps from $1,702 annually to $14,352.

Taking a toll on families

Salary-wise, it's still mostly a man's world

The wage gap’s impact on families can’t be denied. A Pew Research Center study in 2013 found women are the primary or sole breadwinners in 40 percent of American households with children, while most two-parent families also depend on mom’s wages, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that jobs predominantly done by women pay less on average than jobs predominantly done by men. And when women moved into occupations in large numbers, those jobs began paying less even after controlling for education, work experience, skills, race and geography, researchers Paula England, Asaf Levanon and Paul Allison found.

So what’s a woman to do?

If she works for the cloud-based software company Salesforce, she can thank the CEO: He ordered a review of all 17,000 employee salaries, resulting in $3 million extra on the payroll last year to bring female employees’ pay in line with that of male employees doing similar jobs.

She can move to California, where the state’s Fair Pay Act went into effect on Jan. 1. The law requires employers to justify salary differentials between employees doing “substantially similar” work by citing “a bona fide factor other than sex.” It also enables women to ask for and discuss, without retribution, co-workers’ salary information.

The fruits of labor

Or she can join a union. Union pay scales eliminate the opacity and subjectivity in employee compensation that can generate inequities. Full-time unionized female workers earn almost 91 cents for every dollar a unionized man earns, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Not parity, but considerably better.

“We know the wage gap is lower in more transparent organizations (federal government, unionized workplaces), but that may partly be because those are more egalitarian organizations overall,” says Ariane Hegewisch from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The labor movement also has pushed on the policy front to address the gap. Labor activist Esther Peterson was the driving force behind the Equal Pay Act of 1963; and in 2009, unions pressed Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which gave women more time to file equal-pay lawsuits.

Today, says Lee Adler of Cornell University’s ILR School, unions are still front and center in the decades-long fight for fairness, equity and justice. “Unions are focused on getting legal changes as to minimum wage and paid and unpaid leave,’’ says Adler, “and those efforts are starting to pay dividends, especially for women.”

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