Speak up: 50 years later the gender wage gap still too wide in the US

Men earn more than women in the vast majority of occupations nearly 50 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act.

Among students of the same major and the same qualifications, women earn an average of 82 per cent of what their male colleagues earn one year out of college, according to a new study [Reuters]

To whom it may concern:

I highly recommend this exceptional student for a position in your company. She is intelligent, resourceful, creative, talented and among the best students I have taught on the graduate and undergraduate levels over the past 16 years. I respectfully request that you offer her the same salary as a male candidate with her qualifications. If your company already has this gender balanced practice, I applaud you for your fairness. 

This week, I am writing more than a dozen recommendation letters for students I advise at Northwestern University. Most of all these letters are for female students; that reflects the nearly 70 per cent of female students in journalism at the Medill School. For the first time, I am considering adding the last two sentences to my letters of praise. I need to acknowledge the potential injustice from the very beginning of these young women’s careers. 

A new study released Wednesday from the American Association of University Women shows that among students of the same major and the same qualifications, women earn an average of 82 per cent of what their male colleagues earn one year out of college. 

“Women are paid significantly less than men in nearly every occupation,” according to the 2009 study of 15,000 graduates. In plain numbers, women earned an average of $38,000 per year, compared to their male counterparts who earned $45,000. Over a lifetime, the study claims, women earn an average of $500,000 less than men. 

Pay inequities

Perhaps that explains the appeal of the CBS-TV sitcom, 2 Broke Girls. It recently launched its second season of episodes revolving around two waitresses trying to earn more money as proprietors of a cupcake company. Perhaps the show – like the 1976-1983 stretch of Laverne & Shirley – will resonate with women for many more years to come. 

It is astonishing that pay inequities are rampant nearly 50 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, three years after the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Act expanding the window of recourse for employees claiming gender discrimination in wages, and days before an election with pay inequity as a debate talking point. 

Katherine Fenton made news last week because of her racy personal profile, but her question was down to earth: she asked about fair wages during the second presidential town hall debate. The answers were less than satisfying. Controversy erupted over the notion of women in and out of binders, as both candidates urgently call on women to break the near-tie. 

“Women may be important as voters in the United States, but Congress fails to act on our behalf at work.”

Women may be important as voters in the United States, but Congress fails to act on our behalf at work. The Paycheck Fairness Act, defeated in November 2010, was reintroduced earlier this year and shot down in the Senate in early June. The bill may languish due to no action by Congress in the coming weeks, but working women still need to pay their bills with less money. 

I am not an economist, but this seems unconscionable to me as a working female head of household. Holding different positions in different companies since graduating from college in 1979, I have most often earned less than male colleagues doing the same work. As a university mentor, I apologise to my female students that my generation has failed to enforce a more level landscape. 

In the groundbreaking 2003 book, Women Don’t Ask, authors Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever assert that “many women are so grateful to be offered a job that they accept what they are offered and don’t negotiate their salaries”. The authors also state: “Women report salary expectations between 3 and 32 per cent lower than those of men for the same jobs; men expect to earn 13 per cent more than women during their first year of full-time work and 32 per cent more at their career peaks.” 

Need transparency

Certainly, the factors of job choice, hours worked, category of major, type of educational institution, even grades contribute to the pay gap. Still, the AAUW (American Association of University Women) found wage disparities exist for graduates within every category from highly selective, private universities to public universities. 

Overall, the AAUW study found that “men earn more than women in the vast majority of occupations”. But even accounting for all those variables, comparing graduates with the same number of hours worked and the same occupation, women earn 7 per cent less than what a man earns. 

And no, motherhood is not a factor here – though it is often the kneejerk response to women’s failure to thrive in many sectors of the workforce. The researchers deliberately chose a demographic when most all of the respondents did not have children. 

After taking into account higher female occupational preferences for the non-profit sector, healthcare and teaching fields, “about one-third of the gap remains unexplained, suggesting that bias and discrimination are still problems in the workplace”, according to the study. 

Indeed, statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission show an 18 per cent increase in sex discrimination complaints in the workplace from 2001 to 2011 when 28,000 complaints were filed. 

True, one professor writing scores of recommendations a year cannot affect the earnings of all women college graduates across the country. But if all of us – men and women – request transparency, explanation and equity in the hiring process, we may ignite a shift in practice. 

So to US lawmakers and employers, I plead: Stop the rhetoric and simply show us the money. 

Michele Weldon is an assistant professor of journalism at The Medill School of Northwestern University and a fellowship leader with the OpEd Project. Her books include, I Closed My Eyes: Revelations of a Battered Woman (Hazelden/ HCI, 1999) and Writing to Save Your Life (Hazelden/HCI, 2001). 

Follow her on Twitter: @micheleweldon