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Women's Labor Faces Uphill Battle for Parity

Monday, September 4, 2006

This Labor Day, working women face a stubborn gender-based wage gap. State legislators around the country have introduced bills to close the gap, but opponents argue the proposals are difficult to enforce and will discourage business investment.

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This Labor Day, working women face a stubborn gender-based wage gap. State legislators around the country have introduced bills to close the gap, but opponents argue the proposals are difficult to enforce and will discourage business investment.
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Advocates for the Louisiana Equal Pay Act

(WOMENSENEWS)--When Eileen was hired as a university research technician in 1974, she was incensed to discover that one of her co-workers, a man who had less scientific training than her, made $150 more each month for doing the same job. "I confronted my boss and he justified this by saying this man was married," Eileen said. "And I said, well, I have a child."

Twenty-two years ago, speaking up earned her a raise. Now 57, Eileen--who asked that her last name be withheld out of fear of retribution from her current employer, a different university research center--said the system has not changed. Earlier this year, a man was hired in a position above Eileen which carries a minimum pay higher than her own even though he has less experience.

"You kind of expected this in the early 1970s," Eileen said. "But I would have expected a little better in 2006."

Eileen said she believes that, over the years, the lesser wages she earned because of her gender hurt her and the three children she raised as a single mother.

Economist Evelyn Murphy, author of "Getting Even: Why Women Don't Get Paid Like Men and What to Do About It," published by Simon and Schuster in 2001, agrees with her. She has calculated that, over the course of a lifetime, a working woman will earn between $700,000 and $2 million less than her male counterparts.

This Labor Day, according to the Census Bureau's latest data, women who work full-time will earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn. The median income for full-time female workers declined for the third straight year to $31,858 in 2005.

Additional Factors

Age is also a factor in the gender wage gap. According to 2005 statistics from the U.S. Labor Department, wages for female workers under 25 years are 93 percent of those of male counterparts, indicating that the gap widens as women move through their careers and face increasing obstacles to pay equity as they rise through the ranks.

A University of North Carolina study released in August found women's wages had risen to 81 percent of those of men in comparable jobs. Focusing on how women in management ranks impact the wage gap, sociologist Philip N. Cohen, co-author of the study, based his findings on 1.3 million U.S. workers in over 29,000 jobs across the country and found that U.S. workplaces are frequently divided by gender. For example, 70 percent of women work in professions dominated by women, and those professions typically have lower wages than professions dominated by men that require similar skills or education.

The federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 makes it unlawful for employers to pay different wages to men and women for substantially similar work and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination, is applicable to wage discrimination. But in recent years, state lawmakers have attempted to close the persistent gender-based wage gap by introducing legislation with additional enforcement mechanisms or less stringent conditions for requiring equal pay, to make it easier to sue for wage discrimination.

"Some states are drafting 'comparable work' laws, which require equal pay when jobs are comparable--a less stringent standard of how alike responsibilities must be than the federal law," said Sharon Levin, founder and executive director of Women's Prerogative, a Web site based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on women's issues. "Other states are using the concept of 'comparable worth,' which requires employers to look beyond market wages when setting salaries--since historically the market has discriminated against women and that history skews modern market wages--and instead requires individuals whose worth to the employer is the same to be paid the same."

Women's Groups Lobby for Change

Members of the Maryland chapter of Business and Professional Women--a national organization of working women based in Washington, D.C.--lobbied for a state commission to study gender-based wage discrimination that was vetoed by the governor but overridden by the state Legislature in January. The Louisiana Equal Pay Act was voted down in the state House on June 8 and a similar bill in Kentucky passed in the House in March but died in committee in the Senate. And in New York, Business and Professional Women members are rallying around the New York State Fair Pay Act, which has been introduced in the state Legislature every year since 1999 and passed in Assembly every year since 2002, but still lacks a Senate sponsor.

Similar laws are on the books in many states, and the Paycheck Fairness Act and Fair Pay Act are being considered on the federal level.

Business associations--and lawmakers sympathetic to the interests of businesses--have opposed these state bills, arguing that such legislation would expose businesses to litigation and foster a poor investment climate in their states.

"Businesses aren't particularly fond of going to states where there is a greater likelihood that they'll be sued," said Jim Patterson, vice president of governmental relations at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry in Baton Rouge, which earlier this year successfully lobbied against the Equal Pay for Women Act. Patterson believes such a statute invites ungrounded litigation against businesses from disgruntled employees because of the difficulty of comparing jobs and qualifications.

Louisiana Assemblywoman Shirley Bowen said she opposed the legislation because of the broad interpretation it leaves to courts in judging the meaning of "substantially equal" work, which would require equal pay. "In my mind, if we write a law, it should be clear when someone is breaking it," she said.

Discrimination Not the Only Factor

Bowen also argued wage differences between men and women can be attributable to factors other than discrimination. "A woman age 54 in the workplace doing substantially the same work as a man might not get the same amount," she said. "But their work history and experience isn't going to be the same and both people's futures and loyalties with the company have to be factored in. Traditionally, women follow their husbands on job transfers."

Lawmakers including New York Assemblywoman Susan John, who sponsored the New York State Fair Pay Act, believe such attitudes are hurting women.

"The business community says wages should be determined by the market, which is the same as saying that if they can get away with (discrimination) in the marketplace then they should be able to do it," she said.

John said the historic reason for paying women less was that they were not trying to support families. While she believes this reason has never been valid, she says with the increase in households headed by single mothers this disparity has come to hurt not only women, but also children.

"This is the difference between being able to be independent and being dependent," she said. It's the difference between women who don't leave abusive husbands because they can't support their children. Without economic justice and equality, women are not going to be full partners, and we will never be fully equal."

Kara Alaimo earned a bachelor of arts degree from New York University, where she studied journalism and gender and sexuality. She lives and writes in New York City, where she works for the Mayor's Office and studies urban affairs.

For more information:

National Committee on Pay Equity:
http://www.pay-equity.org/

The WAGE Project:
http://www.wageproject.org/

Women's Prerogative:
http://www.womensprerogative.org/

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