If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: in the U.S., women who work full-time earn only 77 cents for every full-time male dollar. Like death and taxes, the gender wage gap is often taken as an unfortunate but inevitable condition we must simply learn to live with. Conservative analysts typically attribute earnings inequality to women's "lifestyle choices" (i.e., "reproductive roles") and argue that for younger workers, disparities between men's and women's pay have nearly disappeared. Yet a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau found that in all but a handful of occupations -- and at every level of the pay scale -- women are paid less: from dishwashers and retail clerks to neurosurgeons and chief executives, women's paychecks are smaller than men's. For the rare woman who works continuously, full-time from the time she completes her education until retirement, those missing wages add up to a lifetime earnings loss ranging from $700,000 for low-wage workers to $2 million dollars for elite professionals. For women who cut back their working hours to care for young children or needy family members, the potential earnings loss is even greater.
Forty-three years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, economists and academics continue to debate the cause of women's earning inequality. Despite evidence of systemic bias, even moderate and liberal experts continue to suggest the problem lies with women, not the workplace. An informative -- and painstakingly documented -- new book by former Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts Evelyn Murphy (in collaboration with investigative journalist E.J. Graff) argues that women aren't paid fairly because employers don't treat them fairly. To back up this claim, Murphy presents a methodical inventory of scores of successful lawsuits women workers filed against employers between 1994 and 2004 -- and after reviewing her research, readers will be hard pressed to disagree with the author's conclusion that "sex discrimination is far more widespread and vastly more entrenched than anyone has recognized."
For women who've been counting on legal protections to assure their equal treatment in hiring, firing, compensation and promotion, reading Getting Even: Why Women Don't Get Paid Like Men -- and What To Do About It may be something of an eye-opener. As Murphy explains, sex discrimination in the workplace takes different forms and affects women's earnings both directly and indirectly, so that the longer a woman works, the farther she falls behind. Even when employers understand the potential legal and moral costs of discrimination, they may see an advantage in sticking with the status quo. As Murphy notes, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has neither the resources nor the directive to actively seek out violations -- and cultural and economic disincentives discourage women workers from pursuing formal charges. Women who encounter workplace discrimination may decide to tough it out or cut their losses and find another job -- which can further compromise their future earnings and opportunities for advancement. With little internal or external pressure to change, employers may do the math and decide that even if they have to pay an expensive legal settlement or two, non-intervention is more cost-effective in the long run than doing right by their women workers. Murphy declares this anti-egalitarian attitude downright "un-America." But historically, one of the most desirable characteristics of female workers is that they've been paid a fraction of what employers expected to pay male workers for the same labor, and old-habits -- especially those incubated in the stone-cold heart of free market capitalism -- die hard.
To explain the myriad ways gender bias and sexual harassment reduce women's earnings compared to men's, Murphy devotes separate chapters to different patterns of discrimination and employment practices which undermine women workers, from "Plain Old Discrimination" -- unspoken policies or organizational cultures that institutionalize preferential treatment of male workers -- to the well-known penalties associated with "Working While Mother." Throughout her analysis, Murphy cites legal actions and interviews women with first-hand accounts of sex discrimination and harassment. In some cases, employers' misconduct was flagrant and extended to the highest level of the organization. In as many if not more instances, sex discrimination continued unchecked because managers were oblivious to the fact that doing business as usual left qualified women trailing in pay and promotions.
In its subtlest manifestation -- which Murphy defines as "Everyday Discrimination" or "Working While Female" -- gender bias may be hard for women to see for what it is: "For many women, everyday discrimination comes in the form of feeling invisible on the job. Their views, recommendations, or ideas are ignored at meetings. Or their successes are attributed to someone else. Or they're refused such minor amenities as office space, administrative support, or pension benefits equal to their peers." But no matter what it looks or feels like, sex discrimination in the workplace invariably hits women in the pocketbook.
According to Murphy, now is the time for women to start getting even, and she lays out a plan of action. It's not enough -- or even advisable -- for individual women to go boldly forth and confront their employers about the injustice of their pint-sized paychecks. Women who go it alone, the author suggests, are more likely to be sidelined as whiners or troublemakers than female workers -- and their male allies -- who plan ahead and present their grievances as a team. But getting employers to acknowledge a problem exists -- and motivating them to fix it -- takes more than pressures from workers. In particular, Murphy highlights case studies in which the CEO's commitment was crucial to closing the wage gap in their organization and resulted in innovative and lasting solutions. Citizen action -- taking the wage gap seriously as a systemic problem rather than an outcome of women's personal behavior -- and pressuring lawmakers to strengthen anti-discrimination regulations and enforcement -- is also essential to getting women the wages they're owed and deserve. If concerned individuals commit to making a concerted effort from the "inside up," from the "top down," and from the "outside in," Murphy figures we can eliminate the wage gap in a decade.
The trouble is, Murphy's proposed course of action sounds like an awful lot of work -- for women workers who suspect they're getting the short shrift, and for progressive and feminist activists who are already up to their eyeballs in urgent social problems. Perhaps the best bet is turning up the heat on CEOs, who are at least in a position to delegate.
And yet -- when you add up the toll the wage gap takes on women's lifetime earnings, there's no denying the cost to women and their families is unconscionable. The Center for Policy Alternatives estimates that pay inequality costs the average working family $4,000 per year -- and that if employed single mothers were paid the same amount as comparable male workers, their poverty rate would be cut in half. And the wage gap won't go away on its own, at least not anytime soon -- by some estimates, at the current rate of progress it will take another 90 years before women's earnings to measure up to men's, dollar for dollar.
Fortunately, we don't have to wait that long. To get the ball rolling on getting even, Murphy launched The WAGE Project, a non-profit organization and web site. The project provides information and practical guidance for those who are fed up with women's unfair pay and ready to do something about it. On the local level, women are encouraged to join or start a WAGE Club -- "a group of women who come together for personal support and who help each other take action to help close the wage gap" -- in their communities. The take-away message of Getting Even is that women can close the wage gap -- but individual women can't do it on their own. For women who want equal pay for equal work, working harder and smarter to get ahead means working together for change.
mmo : april 2006