Also posted at So Let Us Celebrate the Struggle
Yesterday, April 17, 2012, was Equal Pay Day, which marks the 4.5 extra months that a woman would have to work in addition to the year 2011 in order to make the same amount of money as a man in the same calendar year.
The statistics are no secret – you could find dozens, maybe hundreds of reputable sources that repeat the same facts: that, on average, women make about 77% as much as men do – that’s 77.4 cents to every dollar – for a total of $10,784 less. And the wage gap only grows wider for women of minority race, with African-American women making 62% and Hispanic women making 54% as much as the average Caucasian male. These numbers are bad for everyone – the linked fact sheet is from the National Women’s Law Center and describes a variety of statistics, and how different things would be if the wage gap were closed.
In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was signed into federal law, requiring that men and women be given “equal pay for equal work”. Back then, women were making 59% of what men were making – meaning that in 44 years, the gap has only closed 18-19%, with the rate of increase tapering off in recent years, which is why the National Committee on Pay Equity implemented Equal Pay Day in 1996. So we’ve got a cold, hard piece of legislation and countless awareness groups – and yet women are still not making 100% of what their male counterparts do. This means there has to be evidence of lawsuits against employers, right?
Last summer, I distinctly remember a day when I was sitting in an organic chemistry class at Auburn University as an audit, and the Associated Press app on my iPod alerted me to a piece of “breaking news” referring to the Supreme Court case, Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. In June 2001, 54-year-old Betty Dukes of California filed a claim of sex-based discrimination against her employer at Wal-Mart, lamenting unequal pay and promotions between men and women. Five other women across California, independent from one another, had the same story. Eventually, up to 1.6 million women joined the lawsuit, earning certification as a class action, in which a large group of people bring a claim to court, in 2004. Now, I have my own problems with Wal-Mart, and it’s no surprise that this was not the first, nor the last time that they were sued – sometimes settling and throwing money at the plaintiffs to make the immediate problem go away. But Betty Dukes and her million+ new friends made it through five years of hearings and rehearings in the Ninth Circuit federal court all the way to the Supreme Court. Ten years after the original claim was filed, on Monday morning, June 20, 2011, while I was sitting in chemistry, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wal-Mart – saying that the plaintiffs did not have enough in common to even be considered a class action suit.
The EPA is deceptively inclusive, making sure to grey the definition of “equal work”, by saying that “Job content, not job titles, determines whether jobs are substantially equal”. While this sounded fair at first glance, it took me a moment to realize that this actually implies that people with identical job titles can be paid different amounts, based on their employer’s definition of “job content”.
And now, for the question that should be burning in everyone’s mind: why are women still making less money than men?
People much smarter than I am have been trying to figure out the answer to that question for much longer. One theory is that women are viewed as more likely to take time off from work to have children, or even resign from their job in order to raise their children than their male counterparts. Therefore, they are perceived as less reliable employees – because of the off chance that they might get pregnant at some point in their career.
And then there’s the disparity that we’re already familiar with: that women are generally underrepresented in the higher paying jobs as ticky-tacky - doctors and lawyers and business executives – and are more likely to take jobs in child care (87% women) or as health aides (86% women). But this is actually an irrelevant argument, since the wage disparity is calculated between men and women of equal professions – and it still doesn’t explain why women in traditionally female-dominated professions such as nursing or teaching make less than male nurses or teachers, or why female physicians and surgeons make 71% of what men make on a weekly basis.
Now you might be wondering, if the wage gap is known – why aren’t more women fighting for equal pay? You know, because the Dukes vs. Wal-Mart case gave us so much hope. But in all seriousness, the sad truth might be that women don’t actually know that they’re being discriminated against. The statistics are taken from all publicly reported information – but individual paychecks probably aren’t considered as such. So, if you don’t know for sure that your paycheck is less than that of a man in a similar job position because you didn’t see his paycheck, you have no reason to be upset nor press charges.
So what happens now? Activists and awareness groups will tell you to write to your state senators (especially if you live in one of the grey-colored states on this map) and encourage them to make decisions in favor of fair wage legislation, and to join in the movement to raise awareness by attending and organizing local rallies. But I think the best thing to do is to start by educating yourself – be aware that sex-based discrimination exists, and know what your options are if you have reason to believe that you are a victim.
And make sure you tell everyone you know.