Bridging the pay gap between genders

Jenny McCune


Wasn't the battle of the sexes won long ago?

Maybe the battle was won, but not the war. The wage war, that is. Even though federal laws protect women against discrimination, a pay gap persists. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics attests to the fact that women get paid less than men. How big the gender wage gap is, and the reasons for it, depends on who you talk to.

Estimates on what women earn vary anywhere from 65 cents on up to 98 cents for every dollar that men make. The BLS released figures last year from 2004 -- the most recent year for which statistics are available -- showing that women's median weekly earnings were 80 percent that of men. That's an improvement over their earnings in 1979, when they brought home 62 percent. But it's still a significant gap.

Some reasons why women get less pay:

  • Women are more likely than men to suffer job interruptions to care for family, and these interludes keep women from advancing at the same pace as men.
  • Historically men have had a higher level of education than women, so their higher compensation reflects that. This is changing, though. Nearly one-third of women ages 25 to 64 held a college degree in 2004, compared with about 11 percent in 1970. The future looks more promising: Today more women than men are graduating from college, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Only three in every 10 men who enter four-year colleges graduate, compared to four out of every five women. In addition, more than half of all bachelor's and master's degrees are awarded to women.
  • More men are in jobs that pay more, so women, on average, get paid less. Only eight women served as Fortune 500 CEOs last year, and women held only 6.4 percent of "top-earner positions," according to Catalyst, a New York City-based nonprofit research and advisory organization that focuses on women and work. Catalyst estimates it could take 40 years for women to achieve parity with men in corporate officer positions.
  • Women gravitate to jobs that traditionally pay less than the careers where men dominate. For example, doctors make more than nurses and construction workers make more than clerks.
  • Women voluntarily exchange flexibility for salary by working part time, flex time or otherwise limiting their promotions or career advancements. This translates into smaller paychecks.

The picture is even bleaker if you look at the money made over an entire career in the work force. According to Jill Miller, chief executive officer and president of the advocacy organization Women Work!, a woman who only completes high school will make $700,000 less than a similarly educated man over the course of her work career. That discrepancy widens to $1.2 million for college-educated women compared to educated males.

And while men do get paid more, both sexes have been feeling a pinch lately. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's report for 2005 -- released in August -- wages and salaries for those under age 65 declined last year. The scales are still tipped in favor of men, though. Their salaries declined in 2005 and 2004, while those of women declined both those years, in addition to 2003.

It's hard to get a handle on the gender pay gap and how big it is since so many variables are involved.

Some experts point out that it's nearly impossible to get true apples-to-apples comparisons between men's and women's pay unless the exact same job is measured in the same region.

Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation at, likens it to home buying.

How do you compare one home to another when determining value? "There are questions on whether one owner took better care than the other or modified it. Or one is in a better location than the other. It's very hard to compare," Coleman says.

Of course, not everyone goes along with these rationalizations about why women get paid less.

Evelyn Murphy, author of "Getting Even: Why Women Don't Get Paid Like Men and What to Do About It," is among the dissenters. "The pay gap has nothing to do with qualifications, experience or commitment to the workplace. Women are being treated unfairly," she says.

It's a complicated issue, but women (or men, for that matter) who feel they are underpaid can take steps to improve their situations.

Is there a problem?
Before you go to your company with charges that you are underpaid, you need to do your homework. Salaries by occupation and region can be found on such sites as Also compare your wage to the published pay rates in the job classifieds. Finally you can ask friends and co-employees what they are being paid. Because money is often a taboo subject, Coleman of recommends indirectly asking the question. Instead of asking "What do you make?" change it to, "What does someone with a job like yours usually get paid?"

Even if you do see a disparity between your salary and those of your colleagues, make sure you understand the possible reasons behind it before you make any serious allegations.

What to do about it
If your wage gap doesn't pass the smell test, see if other women in your company are faced with the same issue and enlist their help. It's a lot harder to refute a group's charge of sexual discrimination in pay than one sole employee's complaint.

Whether you're on your own or with a group, your next step should be to meet with your immediate supervisor or your human resources department manager to examine the wage disparity. Coleman says it might be easier to meet with the H.R. person rather than your boss -- especially if your boss was instrumental in the decision about your salary.

It is against the law to discriminate due to gender or race. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 requires that men and women be paid equally for equal work at the same employer. The jobs don't have to be identical, but they must be very similar. Job content, rather than job title, is what counts, the government says. If it's a clear-cut case that violates the law, your company will probably be anxious to avoid litigation and be willing to immediately remedy the situation.

If your company doesn't want to make good and doesn't make a compelling case to justify the salary discrepancy, the next step is to file a grievance, if you are a union member, or file a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. You can contact the EEOC by phone at (800) 669-4000 for the field office nearest you.

In addition to negotiating better pay, another option is to work collectively to boost women's salaries. Many women don't realize that wage inequity isn't just their problem, it's society's problem. It not only impacts you, but your husband, your children and other families where women are wage earners.

Join the club
Murphy, who is also an economist and a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, founded Women Are Getting Even, or WAGE, a nonprofit organization with the stated goal of ending discrimination against women in the American workplace. She has started "WAGE clubs" where women can work together to boost wages for their gender. Currently 100 WAGE clubs have appeared since April 2006. Murphy hopes to have 500 going by the end of 2007.

These wage clubs can be company-centric or they can emerge anywhere women gather -- for example, at the YWCA for a workout. Working within a group empowers women. It also puts more pressure on employers to re-examine their pay scales when complaints are lodged by a group rather than an individual. For more information, visit the Web site.

Start on the right foot
For women who are just starting out, avoiding a gap between what you and men are paid can simply be a matter of picking the right career, says Myrtle P. Bell, an associate professor of management at the University of Texas at Arlington. "What I tell my female students is, 'Why be a dental hygienist when you can be a dentist?'"

In other words, seek out positions that pay better, and, in general, strive for the education that's required.

It's up to women -- and men -- to step up to the challenge of making sure they are paid fair and equitable wages. That extra effort ensures that the employees coming after them will finally work in a world where equal pay for equal work is a reality.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: