The catch-up ordeal

April 08, 1999|By Marlene E. Post

TODAY is payday for American women. And it's exactly three months late.

According to the National Committee on Pay Equality, women work 15 months for every 12 months that men work to earn the same income.

Now, we finally catch up to men's 1998 earnings. While the factors leading to this phenomenon are complex, gender discrimination remains high on the list.

When President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, women were earning 59 cents for each dollar earned by men. Kennedy said the legislation was an important first step in addressing "the unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job."

Slowly closing

Yet, 35 years later, the wage gap has narrowed only moderately, with women now earning 76 cents for each dollar earned by men. At this rate, the gap could take five more decades to heal. Meanwhile, as women's professional worth to society is being undervalued in Maryland and in every state unfair wages continue to burden individuals, families and taxpayers.

A 1999 study by the AFL-CIO and the Institute for Women's Policy Research deduced that if current wage patterns continue, American families will lose $200 billion income yearly, an average of $4,000 per family even after taking into account differences in education, age, location and the number of hours worked.

Over a lifetime, the dollars and cents a woman is underpaid can add up to mountains of lost wages, lost investment income, lost retirement and pension savings and a lower standard of living.

This loss is especially felt among low-income women. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of poor working women could rise above the poverty level if they got pay-equity wage increases.

Fair pay also stands to benefit all taxpayers, as the number of families and individuals on government assistance are reduced. As women and families become more self-sufficient, their capacity to save and spend is increased, which helps strengthen the economy. As wage earners work less overtime to make ends meet, they spend more time as contributors to their families and communities.

One reason for the wage gap is job segregation. Many women are employed in "pink collar" jobs where wages are low and jobs are undervalued: clerks, nurses, teachers, librarians. But why is job value affected by gender? Why, for example, are probation officers, usually men, paid more than social workers, usually women.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act clarifies that pay discrimination on the basis of gender is illegal even when the jobs are not identical but education, skills and experience are comparable.

The wage gap is not, however, just an issue for low- and middle-income earners. Since Kennedy's day, women have entered the work force in record numbers and now earn more high school and more college degrees than men. Still, the improved education and work experience of women have only minimally affected the gap.

Today, even women with advanced degrees are paid 25 percent less than men with the same degrees. A 1998 study by Catalyst, a women's research group, found that female executives at Fortune 500 companies receive smaller salaries and bonuses than men in the same jobs.

Women in most industries and on all points of the scale are underpaid, from farmers to engineers, and from bus drivers to university professors.

President Clinton received a standing ovation in his State of the Union message when he called for equal pay for women and stronger enforcement of the Equal Pay Act. America must translate its enthusiasm from applause to action by supporting sound government and corporate policies.

Ensure fair pay

If passed in Congress, the Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act will work to ensure that fair pay practice is implemented, violations are punished and federal dollars are not used to support gender discrimination. We must urge our elected representative to support these federal bills that will benefit all Americans.

We must also encourage private sector changes. Corporations and all those involved in human resources and compensation must initiate gender-neutral pay scale reviews to justly determine the value of each position based on skills, education, responsibility, risk and contributions to the organization.

As women race to play catch-up, America suffers. Fair pay and an end to wage discrimination are good for our nation. It's good for the economy. It reduces dependence on public assistance. It promotes more stable families. And it's the right thing to do.

Marlene E. Post is national president of Hadassah, the largest Jewish membership organization in the United States.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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