woman holding money

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– Depositions by 135 female school safety officers, unarmed trained employees of the New York Police Department, showed the dangers of this female-dominated workplace.

Safety officers at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx described how they had confiscated butcher knives and other weapons.

Agents at Intermediate School 172 in Harlem related how they had confronted a pimp who ran a ring of young prostitutes who provided oral sex for a dollar. At Junior High School 190 in Queens, school safety agents helped rescue a girl who had been forced to have sex with 17 gang members.

Why were these women telling these tales? It was 2014, a year ago, and these police-trained crossing guards were pressing the city to redress a big pay disparity between them and those earning much more for comparable work in such male-dominated settings as hospitals, homeless shelters and other city agencies.

These women eventually reached a settlement with the city last year, but the for others. Although women have made great progress in education, employment and earnings in the past 50 years, women’s earnings were 78 percent of men’s earnings in 2012.

The median annual wage for a woman who worked full time was $37,791, $11,607 less than her male counterpart, Census data show.

"In the past, this disparity was attributed to women’s choices, such as the decision to enter less well-paying occupations or reduce working hours to care for families," said Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women’s economic policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan educational institute devoted to improving lives of Americans through progressive ideas.

"But now more attention is being given to subtle forms of discrimination like classification of jobs within an occupation. Assumptions about what constitute women’s work and its value to society take a terrible toll on women and their families," she said in a phone interview.

Like so many women who work with children, Glynn added, "the school guards were placed in a category that paid less, even though there is nothing more important than protecting children."

Big Piece of Wage Gap

Some economic studies have suggested that occupational segregation may be responsible for 7 percent to 10 percent of the wage gap.

Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, says occupational segregation is pervasive.

"It affects women in low-wage occupations like servers who are confined to the lower paying segments of the industry, such as quick service and family style restaurants rather than the fine dining establishments where male servers earn far more," she said in a phone interview. "It also impacts women in fields like corporate finance, who earn high salaries but are often paid less than men with the same responsibilities because of job titles."

Some women are beginning to challenge these practices. Among them is Teamsters Local 237, the union that represented the 5,000 school safety agents in New York in the four-year lawsuit against the city.

Despite similar training, education and duties, the safety agents earned about $35,000 a year compared to $42,000 for their male counterparts who work at other public institutions.

In addition to $38 million towards reimbursements to the school safety agents for years of unequal wages, the city agreed to spend another $47 million through March 2018 to bring the agents up to parity.

The settlement was part of a new labor agreement between the city and the union, which also represented the other categories of peace officers–70 percent of whom were male–in negotiations with the Bill de Blasio administration.

Extra $7,000

Kangela Moore, a school safety agent for 22 years, said she was "truly grateful for the extra $7,000 in annual income."

"Now I will be able to pay for college, put more food on the table and pay my bills," said Moore, a 45-year-old mother of two, at the Brooklyn rally where the settlement was announced.

Moore’s experience is common, reports the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a nonprofit group that studies economic and public policy issues. Its April 2014 analysis found that there was a wage gap of at least five cents per dollar in 101 of the 112 occupations it examined.

"A gap of five cents per dollar doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up over a 30- to 40-year career," Allegretto said. "Because Social Security benefits are based on earnings, women receive smaller Social Security checks than do male retirees. Women are also more likely to exhaust their financial resources because women have saved less money for retirement and live longer than do men."

In 2014, the poverty rate of older women was 11 percent, 50 percent higher than that of male retirees.

Families also suffer, Glynn noted, because women are the sole support or co-breadwinners of two-thirds of American families.

"Lower wages prevent young women from providing quality child care or lessons for a child who has a special talent," she said. "Middle-aged women can’t help elderly relatives struggling to pay their rent or put food on the table."

Data ‘Hard to Come By’

Despite its heavy toll, overcoming wage gaps caused by occupational segregation is a long, difficult process, said Nicole Porter, a law professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio who specializes in employment discrimination.

"Data is hard to come by," she said in a phone interview. "Individuals can soon exhaust their financial and emotional resources trying to find out what their coworkers earn because many workers have a don’t ask, don’t tell attitude about discussing wages. Employers, especially in the private sector, may have clauses in contracts prohibiting the sharing of wage information."

Public sector workers represented by unions find it easier to pursue these cases because they have access to data during contract negotiations, Porter added. But cases can drag on for years, as the female school safety officers who first raised the issue during contract negotiations with the administration of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg discovered.

Although the Teamsters Local 237 had sought an estimated $70 million in compensation for each year dating back to 2009, the union agreed to far less in the out-of-court settlement. Union lawyers had warned that there was no guarantee that the school safety agents would receive the original amount if the case finally went to trial.

The New York City chapter of NOW–the National Organization for Women, the largest feminist organization in the United States–was a key ally in overcoming the argument by opponents that wage gaps are inevitable in the free marketplace.

"In addition to emphasizing that every day, the school safety guards protected 1 million children in the city’s public schools, we made the wage disparity an issue in the 2013 mayoral election by asking candidates at our public forum whether they would settle the lawsuit," said Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC, in a phone interview.

Mayoral Candidates Signed On

All six candidates promised to do so. A Democrat, de Blasio called a settlement "a no brainer. " He also claimed in his campaign literature that "being raised by a single mother for most of his life had made him a fervent advocate for women who would use the power of government–legislative, purchasing power and the bully pulpit–to stamp out discrimination and promote a more equitable city for all women."

Five months after de Blasio’s landside victory, the lawsuit was still languishing, so NOW-NYC held rallies during April and May where the female school safety agents and champions of women’s financial security urged the mayor to fulfill his campaign promise.

"As a Goodyear Tire employee who received unequal wages for 19 years, I walked the same path that the school safety agents are walking today," Lilly Ledbetter, the namesake of the 2009 equal pay act, told the crowd.

Wage discrimination is not only illegal but immoral, Ledbetter said. President John F. Kennedy signed the first law guaranteeing equal pay for equal work in 1963, so it is high time for the country to end wage discrimination, she added.

"We were delighted that the de Blasio administration and the union reached an agreement in August 2014 and that it included back pay for retired workers who are often overlooked in these settlements," said Ossorio. "But our work is far from done"

She predicted that ending wage discrimination will continue to be a top priority of NOW chapters across the nation. At the current rate of change, Census data show that it will take 43 years for women to reach parity.