By Kara Alaimo
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.
(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.
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."
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