Wednesday, June 30, 1999

The Wage Gap: Pay Equity Debate Creates Huge Political Divide

By Patricia Edmonds

The math seems straightforward: His Paycheck minus Her Paycheck should equal The Wage Gap.

But nothing's that simple in the roiling debate about pay equity for women.

What began as a dispute about pennies on the dollar has escalated into a high-stakes standoff -- a politically- and emotionally-charged reappraisal of everything from gender discrimination to work-family tradeoffs.

The latest U.S. Census statistics say women make an average 74 cents for every dollar men make. WomenCONNECT.com's first annual Paycheck Check-up, a comprehensive survey of salaries across 78 professions, finds women's average pay trailing men's in virtually every field. Earlier this year when President Clinton exhorted Congress to "make sure women and men get equal pay" by stiffening enforcement of equal pay laws, members of both parties gave him a standing ovation.

So what's left to dispute?

Everything -- from the very existence of a "wage gap" to the factors behind it and the way government should approach it.

One side argues that laws passed in the mid-'60s have largely eradicated workplace discrimination, and today's disparate wages are instead a result of market forces and working women's choices.

The other side contends that discrimination persists, that it keeps women locked in low-paying, sex-segregated jobs, and that new laws are needed to stem it.

Below, key points in the debate, and experts' widely differing views of them.

"There's a significant wage gap between America's working women and men."

Absolutely not, say Barbara Ledeen, executive director of the conservative Independent Women's Forum, and Christine Stolba, co-author of Women's Figures, a book on the equal pay debate that the Forum recently published.

Today, Ledeen insists, "Women are earning equal pay for equal work. It's the law of the land and has been since 1963 and 1964," with the passage of the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act. She and Stolba contend that 74-cents-on-the-dollar average salary comparison is a distortion that doesn't account for differences between similarly-employed men and women -- differences in background, education and, especially, time off for childrearing. In a study of people ages 27 to 33 who had no such different circumstances and no children, Stolba says, "women's earnings approach 98% of men's earnings."

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman's response: "That would be fine if women never aged and never had children -- but they do, and when they do, we find that they are often subjected to wage discrimination." Herman stands by the 74-cents figure: When she spoke at recent commencements, she says, she drove the discrepancy home by asking women students to stand "if you were told, since you're female, you only have to pay 75% tuition." No one stood.

"Women pay the same for goods and services -- they should be paid the same for the work they do," Herman says. According to a survey by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, unequal wages cost an average working woman's family about $4,000 a year -- and cost all of American working women's families some $200 billion a year.

"Discrimination is to blame for the wage gaps, and for the high proportions of women in lower-paid jobs."

Stolba insists women's average wages are lower not because of discrimination but because of women's own "rational choices" about working part-time or in lower-paying fields that may offer more flexibility. "Pay equity proponents don't like the choices that some women make," she says, "and they don't want women to have to face the consequences of those choices."

The National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of more than 180 groups including labor, religious, women's and civil rights organizations, contends that "Part of the wage gap results from differences in education, experience or time in the workforce. But a significant portion cannot be explained by any of those factors; it is attributable to discrimination. Certain jobs pay less because they are held by women and people of color." One example: "More than half of all women workers hold sales, clerical and service jobs," among the lowest-paid occupations.

Stolba sneers at the notion of a "pink collar ghetto": "To argue that women are somehow funneled by a sexist society into these predominately female occupations is ludicrous, given the social, educational and political advances women have made." But Herman -- noting that 68 percent of U.S. women earn less than $25,000 a year, compared to 46 percent of men -- insists discrimination is partly to blame.

In several high-profile cases this year, companies have acknowledged discriminating against women employees in matters of pay and advancement and, in some instances, promised cash settlements. Last month, Eastman Kodak Co. agreed to pay $13 million in current and retroactive pay raises to female and minority employees it says were discriminated against.

"Even at the top levels of business, women make less than their male counterparts."

Though more women are joining the top executive ranks, those who do find "a formidable obstacle: a wage gap at the top of corporate America." So says a 1998 study by Catalyst, the Manhattan-based research organization that works with business to advance women.

The Catalyst study found that fewer than 3 percent of the highest-paid officers at Fortune 500 companies are women; that while nearly 25 percent of male corporate officers are top earners, only 5 percent of female corporate officers are; and that, on average, the female officers earn about 68 cents for every dollar the male officers earn.

Stolba's response: "It's a false measurement to complain there are only a very small percentage of high-earning women in corporations, when so many women have made the choice to step out of the workforce and then return to it. It would be unfair to raise the wages of the woman who has stepped out of the workforce (to equal the wages of the man who hasn't). Equal opportunity doesn't mean equal results." Her bottom line, from Women's Figures: "What appears to be happening (and what those who cite discrimination ignore) is that women in many professions are making decisions to balance work and family priorities and that those decisions can result in fewer women reaching the top of their fields."

Sociologist Robert Nelson, author of the new book Legalizing Gender Inequality: Courts, Markets, and Unequal Pay for Woman in America, says there's a larger question to be asked about women and career advancement: "Do employers have to organize work in a way that tends to penalize the career patterns a lot of women have? Certain organizational practices could be changed, and should be changed, because they have a disproportionately unfavorable impact on working women." For example, he says, the practice of giving promotions and pay increases to people who relocate. "Men whose wives stay at home get the advantage of a policy like that; working women married to working men get penalized by it," Nelson says. "It doesn't look like discrimination on its face, everybody has the same opportunities -- except it has very different gender consequences."

"Public policy must change to address this issue."

The Equal Pay Act that John F. Kennedy signed into law in 1963 outlawed wage discrimination based on gender. And Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, passed a year later, prohibited employers with 15 or more workers from treating similarly-employed men and women differently in terms of wages and opportunities. However, pay equity activists say those laws are ill-enforced, and more protection is needed.

At the federal level, Herman notes that Clinton put $14 million in his fiscal 2000 budget to fund stepped-up efforts to enforce wage discrimination laws. The administration also is on record endorsing the Paycheck Fairness Act now pending in both houses of Congress. It provides protections against retaliation for employees who blow the whistle on pay inequities in their workplaces; and it gives women the right to sue for compensatory and punitive damages -- the same right victims of racial discrimination now have. Pay equity expert Nelson calls the bill "a

moderate measure" that would not be likely to have "a very dramatic effect on wage practices."

By contrast, Nelson says, another bill pending, the Fair Pay Act of 1999, "would certainly shake things up" -- if it could get passed over what he predicts would be staunch business community opposition. The bill would require employers to send the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission annual reports on the average pay levels of their male and female employees in each job position.

But its most controversial aspect, Nelson says, is that it basically espouses the notion of "comparable worth" -- that is, that wages should be the same for men and women not just in the same jobs but in different jobs that have roughly comparable requirements in terms of skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.

Comparable worth has long been a red-meat issue between liberals and conservatives. Stolba says what pay equity activists really want is a system that "has government bureaucracies go in and decide which professional occupation should earn which set wage," then bumps up those wages for women.

But the National Committee on Pay Equity contends it's only fair to evaluate the relative worth of predominately female and male jobs -- say, whether a social worker is worth as much as a parole officer -- and set pay accordingly.

The committee points to pay equity measures it says have been implemented successfully: For example, among Minnesota state employees in the mid-'80s, the virtually-all-female stenographers made only $1,171 a month while the all-male laborers made $1,521 a month. After pay equity legislation was passed, the state government spent millions of dollars to upgrade women's pay, which went from 69 percent of what men earned, in 1976, to 86 percent of what men earned, in 1996 -- a 17 percent increase.

Pay equity activists are concentrating their efforts on the state houses: Earlier this year, the AFL-CIO backed introduction of bills in 24 states that would require employers to pay men and women equally for comparable jobs.

As the debate over pay equity rages, there is one point on which combatants agree: That working women, whatever discrimination they may face, have steadily advanced in the work world. "Obvious statistical gains," say the authors of Women's Figures -- or in Herman's words, "great progress."