Women Still Working for Last Year’s Wages

Just a few days after paying last year’s taxes, women are still receiving last year’s wages as well. Today (Tuesday, April 19) is Equal Pay Day, designed to call attention to this country’s disparity in wages by gender. The month is selected to represent the amount of additional time that women have to work to make the same amount of wages that men made by December 31 of last year, while the day, Tuesday, is selected to represent when womens’ wages catch up from the previous week. We look forward to the day that this event is celebrated in March, February, or even January, and especially to the day that we no longer need to observe it at all.

Each year, the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) organizes the national observance of Equal Pay Day (or, as one commentary correctly observed, “Unequal Pay Day,”) to raise awareness about unfair pay for women and people of color in America. NCPE is a coalition of women’s and civil rights organizations; labor unions; religious, professional, legal, and educational associations, commissions on women, state and local pay equity coalitions and individuals working to eliminate sex- and race-based wage discrimination and to achieve pay equity. Each year, to promote observance of the day, NCPE produces an Equal Pay Day Kit, with legislative information, media releases, letters, and proclamations, that can be used to generate local interest in equal pay issues. Those observing the day are asked to wear red, to signify that women are in the red when it comes to pay.

Because there’s an annual observance, the facts may lose some of their shock value, but it is still startling to realize that women make only 73% percent of what men make. Although there has been progress, with the wage gap narrowing approximately 10% over the last ten years, 60% of that progress can be attributed to the declining wages of male workers, rather than a significant boost in women’s pay. (See NCPE Q & A on Pay Equity.) Here’s what this means in real terms: “Totaling more than $300,000 for the average woman’s career, it can mean the difference between owning a home or renting, sending your kids to college versus sending them to flip burgers, and a decent retirement versus penury in old age.” (See Houston Chronicle op-ed.)

Women of color are at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to wages:

    In one year, the average black woman earns approximately $12,000 less than the average white man does. Over a 35-year career, this adds up to $420,000!

    In one year, the average Hispanic woman working full-time earns $17,837 less than the average white man does. Over a 30-year career, that adds up to $510,000!

(See NCPE Women of Color in the Workplace.)

Some may argue that part of the disparity in wages between women and men can be explained by life choices: women more often choose to stop working or work less than full time in order to raise children, for example. NCPE responds by citing the studies in numerous professions which show that a wage gap exists even when comparing women and men who have the same job, education, qualifications, and time in the workforce. (See NCPE Examining the “Women’s Choices” Theory). For example, a survey of public relations professionals showed that women with less than 5 years of experience make $29,726 while men with the same amount of experience make $48,162. A study of women in the telecommunications industry showed that among video programmers, women with advanced degrees earn 64.6% of their male counterparts, and women with college degrees earn 80%.

Another part of the problem is what is known as “comparable worth,” the reality that jobs that are traditionally male are valued more highly than jobs that are traditionally female. Or, as one commentator put it:

Why do parking lot attendants get paid more than child care workers? Is it harder work? Does it take more training? Is the work somehow more valuable to society?

Or is it that most parking lot attendants are men, and most child care workers are women?

(See Denver Post op-ed.) NCPE cites various pay equity studies which have grappled with this problem, and the results are illuminating. (See NCPE Equivalent Jobs.) It is clear that much more work needs to be done, to identify and rectify the disparities between job categories that exist.

It shouldn’t take an expensive lawsuit for employers to take a hard look at wage disparity, but unfortunately, it often does, or we might have seen more progress over the years. At the rate we’re going, the gap may never be closed, or certainly not in our lifetimes at least. In educating others about sexual harassment, the question is often posed, “Would you want your mother, daughter, or sister to be treated this way?” because it brings into perspective what blatant disrespect that harassment can be. Until we can ask the same question of those who make pay decisions, and transform what they now blithely accept as reality into the same fundamental outrage at the disrespect suffered by many female workers each pay period, it is unlikely that we will see significant changes.

More Information:

Workplace Fairness: sex discrimination

National Organization for Women Press Release

National Committee on Pay Equity

AFL-CIO: How Does Your State Rate?

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.