(WOMENSENEWS) — For Sharon Long, the realization that she wasn’t getting equal pay for equal work came in the form of a Mercedes.
Long, 44, of Canton, Md., was working as a purchasing agent at a heating, air conditioning and refrigeration wholesale company when she looked around at the lifestyles of her three male coworkers. While she was struggling to pay her bills, they were buying expensive cars and going on luxury vacations.
So in June of 1995, Long went to her boss and complained. To her surprise, her salary was doubled.
"I knew I was being underpaid," she says now. "I didn’t know by how much." But the flush of success didn’t last very long. A month later, her boss called her into his office and told her that she was being laid off due to company downsizing. It was a lay off of one.
Long is one of millions of women to pay the price of wage discrimination and paycheck inequity.
Now, she has become a one-woman symbol of an intense effort to begin to eliminate the wage gap.
This week, the Center for Policy Alternatives in Washington, D.C., is launching a national campaign to press for states pay equity laws. Legislators in 12 states–Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin and West Virginia–are challenging their colleagues to commit to support pay equity during this legislative session.
Women Average 72 Cents For Each $1 Earned By A Man
This could mean finding local solutions such as raising the minimum wage (nationally $5.15), introducing legislation that would increase penalties for violating existing state laws and requiring statewide studies about why the wage gap exists and what can be done to equalize salaries.
The wage gap varies greatly from the largest in Wyoming, according to the center, where women only are paid 63 cents for every dollar a man is paid, to the District of Columbia where women take home 88 cents for every dollar a male employee brings home, the smallest gap in the nation.
"The first thing is to get people to realize how much difference it makes in the pocketbooks of families," says Linda Tarr-Whelan, president of the Center for Policy Alternatives.
The overarching message is that while Bush’s trillion-dollar tax cut is welcomed by some working families, merely paying women and minorities an equal wage for equal work would put an average of $4,000 a year back into family coffers, she said.
The White House has said that the Bush tax cut would result in a $1,600 reduction in the tax burden of a family of four with $35,000 annual income.
Also, another Washington, D.C. advocacy organization, the National Committee on Pay Equity, will sponsor Equal Pay Day on April 3 this year. The date is selected that is the point into the new year that a woman must work to earn the wages paid to a comparable man during the previous year.
On that day, women nationwide will wear buttons printed with messages such as "Where’s my 28 cents?" They also are encouraged to ask for store discounts based on pay inequity and wear 72 percent of their clothes–to symbolize the 72 cents that women make for every dollar a man makes.
And two pieces of national legislation have been wending their way through Congress and supporters hope to push for passage this year.
The Fair Pay Act would allow women to bring suit based on the concept of "equal pay for equal work." Employees within a single company could sue if they believe they are being paid less than someone with an equivalent job and equivalent training.
The Paycheck Fairness Act provides for higher damages in these types of lawsuits and protects employees who share salary information.
During the last legislative session, the Paycheck Fairness Act was offered as an amendment and voted down on a strict party line vote. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), one of the bill’s main sponsors, will push for its introduction as stand-alone legislation this year, according to her spokesperson Ashley Westbrook.
Women’s Lower Earnings Last a Lifetime
Thirty-five years after passage of the Equal Pay Act outlawing gender discrimination, women still earn substantially less than men. That translates into a gap of 28 cents between the average salaries of American men and women, a gap that has grown during the recent economic boom as men’s salaries have skyrocketed and women’s have stagnated. For every dollar that a man takes home, wage experts say a woman only takes home 72 cents. African-American women take home 65 cents and Latinas 52 cents, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity.
Experts cite several reasons for the wage gap. One is the concentration of women and minority men in minimum wage and historically low paying jobs. More than 50 percent of women work in clerical, sales and service jobs. And women work disproportionately in the so-called "caring professions," such as nursing, nursing assistance, day care work, social work, education and other jobs.
"Many of these jobs are things that people used to do for free," says Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Committee on Pay Equity. "The notion of paying women for that work has been at times a radical concept and the notion of paying them what men earn is a really radical concept."
In non-traditional occupations, such as in the case of Sharon Long, inequities exist for other reasons, including bias and misconceptions. Employers may believe that women don’t need to make as much money as men because they’re not the primary breadwinner. Women may not get promoted as quickly as men or get as many raises for the same reason, even though women now are as likely to be the chief breadwinner as their male colleagues. Recent evidence shows that younger women’s salaries are pretty much on par with those of their male co-workers–until age 30, adds the policy center’s Tarr-Whelan. At that point, employees may not promote women because of the assumption that they’ll want to have children or because they do have children.
"It’s a wake-up call a little too late," Tarr-Whelan added.
In addition, the pay inequity often affects women throughout their subsequent lives, including low Social Security payments. "We suffer in the end," said Pat Cornish, national president of Business and Professional Women USA. "We work longer; we live longer; we have less money invested for retirement."
Some disagree with the effort to reduce the gap in earnings, arguing that the wage gap exists because women choose lower paying jobs for the flexibility they offer.
"A preference for more time at home with less pay and less job advancement is a legitimate choice, not a social problem in need of government action," wrote Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Christine Stolba in a 1998 Investor’s Business Daily article, articulating this view.
However, the advocates for pay equity counter those types of arguments by saying they do not reflect reality, that few women sit down with career planners and chart out their jobs based on flexibility and opportunities to reenter the work force, thereby consciously choosing lower lifetime earnings.
"Many women sort of end up in jobs through happenstance," says Reed from the pay equity committee. "Yes, there are some women who have options and choose to forgo wages in return for a job that has a more flexible schedule. But for most women, that’s not the case."
While efforts to close the wage gap have not won broad bipartisan support in Congress, advocates for pay equity say that the issue is very much on voter’s minds. In a 1999 poll by Business and Professional Women USA, 65 percent of all voters likely to vote Republican and 77 percent of all voters likely to vote Democratic said they were concerned about pay equity.
Many advocates say the best way to put more money into women’s pockets is to encourage them to join unions, claiming that women who are members of unions earn 40 percent more than non-union women.
According to the AFL-CIO, a 30-year-old women who’s a member of a union and makes an average of $30,000 a year stands to lose about $650,133 over a lifetime because of unequal pay. But if she’s not a union member she’ll lose about $870,327. "One of the things people can do is collectively bargain," says Reed from the pay equity committee. "Unions have been more successful than any other group at closing the wage gap."
As for women not in positions to join a union, the new federal laws could help promote pay equity, argues Sharon Long. She says she has spoken to members of Congress about the need for Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act to provide easier access to the courts for those who wish to press for equal pay.
Long adds that she wants to get out the message that women should pay attention to what they’re making and speak up if there seem to be inequities.
"I survived and I want women to know that if I got through it, they can too. But I hope that companies can do something from within so that we don’t have to do something like this."
Sarah Stewart Taylor is a free-lance writer in Washington, D.C.