Winning the Bread

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By Nancy Dietrich
Dietrich works for the University of Illinois and lives in Urbana. This piece (which has been slightly modified) was originally published as a Guest Commentary in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette.
Awhile back, a male friend disclosed to me that he was making several thousand dollars more than the rest of his (female) colleagues, even though he had only been at the firm a couple of years. It was a financial job, and I knew at least one of his female colleagues had several years’ more experience in the company and had a college degree relevant to the job. What was this man’s degree in? Theater! Why was my friend making more than someone with better credentials and more experience?
Unfortunately, this scenario is quite common. On average, women must work over 3 months longer to make the same wages that men make. Equal Pay Day, the date when women’s wages catch up to men’s wages from the year before, is being observed on April 17th. This date calls attention to the fact that, 49 years after the landmark passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women still make considerably less money than men.
In the current economy, this is not just a “women’s issue.” More and more families depend on the wages of women. Nearly four in ten mothers are primary breadwinners in their households and nearly two-thirds are significant earners. Twenty-five percent of women are either single or heads of households with dependents. Women’s wages are critical to putting food on families’ tables and keeping roofs over their heads.
Wage discrepancies cannot be explained solely by women leaving the workforce to raise children.  According to research by the American Association of University Women, just one year out of college women in the US working full time earn only 80% as much as their male colleagues. Ten years after graduation, women fall farther behind, earning only 69% as much as men earn. That translates to months of food bills, mortgage payments, rent, and utility bills lost to American families at a time when they’re struggling and the economy desperately needs their consumer spending.
While some of the wage disparity may be attributed to womens’ career choices, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that women make less money in almost every occupation tracked. A recent article from the online magazine Good News entitled “Women Make Less Than Men at Every Education Level” also highlights these wage discrepancies: So even in traditionally female occupations, women still make less money than men. Research also shows that as women enter traditionally male occupations, overall wages in that sector go down. When men enter traditionally female occupations, wages go up. Preconceived notions of who should make more money still prevail and push wages up or down, depending on who is doing the job.
Stereotypes about negotiating salary also contribute to the wage gap. Research by Economist Linda Babcock showed that women who negotiated their salary before being offered the job were typically not given the offer. Men were not similarly affected. Additional research by Hannah Riley Bowles, associate professor at Harvard, revealed that when women asked their boss for a raise, it was typically looked at negatively. Double standards still exist regarding appropriate behavior by women and men in the workplace.
So what can we do about it? Here’s how to help April 17, Equal Pay Day, become a thing of the past:
1. The Paycheck Fairness Act passed in the House of Representatives in 2009, but recently failed in the Senate. When this bill is re-introduced, contact your Senator asking for their support.
2. Support salary transparency, including lifting the “gag rule” that exists in many companies (the gag rule means employees are not allowed to disclose their wages to other employees). Making all salaries public (as is the case in public institutions) would go even further to discourage wage discrimination.
3. Support unions. Unions bring wages up for both women and men, and more money to support families helps the economy. Teachers’ unions have been coming under fire in the last couple of years in several states, and over 75% of teachers are women.
4. Women–Negotiate your salary, starting from your first job. There are several resources on the web that can help you become more confident with negotiation strategies. As more women negotiate, it will become seen as part of the normal hiring process (as it currently is with men).
Congress passed the Equal Pay Act 49 years ago to ensure that women and men would earn the same pay for the same work. We still haven’t realized the promise of the law. It’s time to join together and take another step forward for women and the families that depend upon them. Our nation and our economy cannot afford to have women shortchanged any longer.
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