What do women want? Pay parity

September 12, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Back in the early 1980s, when Karen Nussbaum was the head of 9 to 5, the organization of clerical workers conducted a national survey on working women and stress. It identified the worst ''coping mechanism'' that women used, the one sure to lead to the highest stress and the worst results.

No, it wasn't alcohol, it wasn't drugs. It was, she says, ''apologizing when you weren't wrong.''

Yet that was the posture of many working women in the years after they began flooding the workplace: apologetic. They thought of themselves as temporary or new workers, grateful or guilty women, and marginal.

Well, it took a generation, says Ms. Nussbaum, but ''we're not saying 'I'm sorry' anymore.''

What are we saying? The former director of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor is now head of the AFL-CIO's Working Women's Department, which just completed a national survey called ''Ask a Working Woman.''

The labor union, with its 5.5 million women members, expected, even planned, to identify one issue, probably child care, to kick off a high-profile campaign. But as Ms. Nussbaum says, ''When you ask working women, you have to listen to what they say.''

And while child care was a serious concern, the issue that came up with megaphone clarity in the questionnaires filled out by 50,000 working women and in a telephone survey was this: ''equal pay.'' A full 94 percent in the telephone survey identified ''equal pay for equal work'' as ''very important.'' Over a third said it wasn't currently provided in their jobs.

So basic, old-tyme, phase one discrimination is alive and well, even though it's been illegal since 1963. But we know that. Women earn 72 cents for every dollar men earn. Women earn less in every job category, except -- mysteriously -- mechanic.

Work, fairness and gender

But ''equal pay'' does not just refer to the legal issue. After all, nearly half of working women are in jobs that are overwhelmingly female. There is no man around with whom to compare paychecks. ''Equal pay'' has come to represent a galaxy of complaints revolving around work, fairness and gender. As Ms. Nussbaum reads the responses, ''What they are saying is, 'My pay isn't right and it's related to my being a woman.' ''

Women have been seething privately about low pay and discrimination for years, but it fell off the public agenda: not as sexy as harassment, not as trendy as stress.

''If you look at issues, you could say this is static. We were complaining about pay 20 years ago. But if you look a layer deeper, it's volcanic, because women now see themselves as economic actors with responsibility for economic well-being.''

A full 41 percent of working women today are the sole support of their families. Two out of five are on their own. Even among the married women, 52 percent say their wages are half or more of the family income. No wonder that they report so much anxiety about the lack of job security.

''I think we have arrived at a different frame of mind for most working women,'' says Ms. Nussbaum. Self-image tagged along behind and finally changed to fit reality. ''They are more self-confident. They feel like they are holding everything together and doing it by their fingernails. Attitudes have finally caught up with changed economic conditions.''

Among those attitudes is a greater belief among women in the power of working together to make change. The AFL-CIO and a range of women's organizations will be testing that with a newly formed Working Women Working Together Network. They are embarking on a long-term grass-roots campaign for ''equal pay'' through a series of National Days of Action, a toll-free number (1-888-971-9797), and the targeting of unfair employers.

Now, we're in the wake of a sustained and wildly uneven economic recovery. During the soccer-mom election of 1996, even a Republican Congress passed a minimum-wage increase. This year, the UPS strike gave labor a boost. We may well be at a turning point when this generation of working women turns private seething into public action.

Equal pay. Without apologies. It has a nice ring.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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