by Ellen Bravo
- USA -
Women earn so little money because… their employers pay them so little money. Why do employers do this? Because they can, and often because they think they have to in order to compete.
The best researchers in the United States gathered recently to solve a long-standing puzzle: why women in the richest country in the world earn so little money. Using sophisticated multiple regression analyses and other scientific tools, the researchers finally came up with the answer.
The Big Boys, those who control power and wealth, will tell you that women’s pay in the U.S. is doing just fine. The gap is narrowing, they proclaim! It’s practically disappeared for young women starting out! Women are faring better than men during this economic downturn! And to the extent that a wage gap exists at all, it’s because of choices women make (trading income for flexibility, opting out of high-paying, high-pressure jobs) or deficiencies they possess (lack of negotiating skills).
Neat little trick, putting it back on women. Problem is, none of it works.
Take the narrowing of the wage gap. Today women overall in the U.S. earn 77 cents for every dollar men make; African-American women earn 72 cents, Latinas 60 cents. That is better than the 59 cents ratio of the late sixties. But half the narrowing of the gap comes from loss of pay for men, particularly men of color. This is hardly what women had in mind by equality. What’s more, the gap is greatest for women with the most education working the longest hours. And the mommy wage gap – the difference between what mothers earn and the pay of everyone else – continues to increase.
As for young women starting out, it depends where they’re starting from. Those without a college education or connections usually wind up in low-paying occupations – ones that pay less even than low-wage jobs dominated by men. According to Stephen Rose and Heidi Hartmann, 17 percent of women but only 1 percent of men working full-time average less than $15,000 per year. More than 90 percent of long-term low earners among prime-age adults are women.
How about college-educated women? Their starting pay is about 80 percent of their male colleagues (tailoring off to 69 percent a mere ten years later). Some of the difference does correspond to the fact that women are less likely than men to ask for higher pay. But here’s the rub: research shows that when women do ask for a raise, they’re likely to be punished for it. As Hannah Riley Bowles from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government put it, “What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not."
And that’s not the main problem with the “women don’t ask” theory. In most jobs, women have no right whatsoever to negotiate over pay. They may also have no right to know what anyone else is making. From car dealerships to retail stores, law offices to telecommunication firms, employees are required to sign a statement acknowledging that “discussing salary with colleagues” is a “fire-able offense.” In some cases, these provisions are a cover so women won’t know they’re making less than their male colleagues.
But outright discrimination isn’t the only problem. The key to women’s low wages lies in how jobs are evaluated and compensated in the first place – the legacy of discrimination is embedded in the pay for women’s work.
Many jobs that are now female-dominated, such as clerical work, once excluded women. During the Civil War, employers decided to hire women because men weren’t around – and because they could pay the women half to two-thirds the wages of men, at the time a culturally and legally acceptable rate. Not surprisingly, women proved capable and employers continued to hire them. It didn’t take long for the discriminatory wage to become what we know as the “market rate.”
Similarly, the under-valuation of women’s work in the home translated into low pay for similar work in the marketplace. That’s why the people who care for our young children earn less than those who care for our cars, our pets, our lawns.
Even within the same jobs, men and women don’t earn the same rate. But mostly, men and women still do different jobs – and women’s jobs pay less simply because women perform them.
Lack of collective bargaining rights also undermines women’s wages. The Big Boys like to say pay corresponds to risk. Yet the Washington Post (The Hazards of Elder Care, October 31, 1999) found that one of the poorest paid occupations, nurse’s aide, faces a risk of serious injury higher than that of a coal miner or steel worker. Some of the lowest-wage jobs – often performed by non-white immigrant workers of both genders – are those with grueling physical labor and the highest exposure to dangerous substances. Power, not danger, is what determines pay rates.
High on the list of reasons for women’s low pay is the motherhood penalty. Not only are mothers paid less than women without kids or men of any family situation, research shows they’re also less likely to be hired and promoted.
Women’s pay is also hurt by the loss in value to inflation of the minimum wage, since they’re disproportionately clustered in those jobs, and by the lack of any law requiring equal treatment for part-time and temporary workers – another area where women are disproportionately represented.
Business Week proclaimed that women are faring “better” than men during the economic downturn. That’s because jobs where women predominate are more difficult to outsource. Companies may be able to produce shoes in Malaysia, but bedpans and office floors can’t be cleaned overseas.
What about the “choice” argument? Women may choose to care for children rather than for electric wiring, but they don’t choose to live in poverty as a result. As for trading income for flexibility, don’t forget that the lowest paying jobs are the least flexible. Women don’t “opt out” of powerful positions – they’re driven out by the lack of flexibility.
Many industrialized countries do better than the United States when it comes to the wage gap, although the under-valuation of women’s work is a nearly universal problem. So is the intersection of gender and race discrimination – indigenous women, immigrants and in European countries, women of color regardless of country of origin, are found everywhere in the least rewarding, least secure positions.
The solutions are no mystery: we need pay equity legislation (with adequate funding and enforcement) that require employers to use objective job evaluations and remove gender and race as criteria in compensation, as well as laws that ease the negotiating that matters most – collective bargaining. To end the motherhood penalty, we need to ensure that family responsibility is added to the list of categories protected under anti-discrimination law. And we need to raise the wage floor and guarantee equity for those in non-standard jobs. Bills on all these issues have been introduced in the U.S. Congress. You can find more information on this issue at www.payequity.org.
Let your elected officials and candidates for all federal offices know how important these proposals are to you. Women do need to learn how to negotiate. But above all, we need to learn how to organize.
About the Author
Ellen Bravo is the former director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women. For more on this subject, read her book, Taking on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the Nation (The Feminist Press at CUNY) and visit her website, www.ellenbravo.com