April 9 2013
by Susan Adams, Forbes Staff
Today is Equal Pay Day, a public awareness day started 17 years ago by a group called the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE), a nonprofit coalition that includes labor unions and women’s and civil rights organizations. The NCPE and liberal groups like the National Women’s Law Center and the National Partnership for Women & Families maintain that women make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and that the number has been stuck there for nearly ten years. At this rate, notes Sarah Crawford, Director of Workplace Fairness at the National Partnership for Women and Families, “We don’t expect the gap to close for four more decades.”
Crawford’s group and the National Women’s Law Center both sent me studies last week that analyzed 2012 Census Bureau data and underlined the 23-cent wage gap between women and men. The studies also broke down the gap in major metro areas and in the states. In some spots the gap was greater than the national figure. In Wyoming, for instance, women make 67 cents for every dollar earned by men, the biggest gap in the nation. Further, they looked at how non-white women’s wages compared with white men’s pay and they found even greater disparities. In Washington, D.C., for instance, African-American women make 53 cents on the dollar while Hispanic women make only 44 cents compared with white men. In the state of California, Latinas make 43 cents for every dollar earned by white men.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a neutral source, published figures in January that looked at weekly earnings by men and women, as opposed to annual pay, and found that women earn 79% of what men are paid.
Meantime, conservative groups like the Independent Women’s Forum have also gotten in touch with me and insisted that the 77-cent number is a misleading statistic that doesn’t take into account education levels, experience and the sorts of jobs men take versus women. For instance, more men are engineers, while more women are social workers. The Independent Women’s Forum points to studies that back its contentions, like a 2010 study by a market research firm called Reach Advisors, that analyzed census data and found that in 47 of the 50 biggest U.S. metropolitan areas, the median full-time salaries of young women were 8%higher than for men in their peer group. In two cities, Atlanta and Memphis, the median salary for women was 20% more than for men. In New York City, it was 17% more. But there’s a catch: The numbers only apply to unmarried, childless women under 30. Also if you look closely at the Reach Advisors study, it notes that most of the women in that age group are better-educated than the men.
This is certainly a realm of competing studies, and when you control for things like education, experience and job types, the gender wage gap does narrow. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in June of 2012 looked at male and female mid-career doctor researchers who had roughly the same levels of education and experience. The study took into account specialty, academic rank, leadership positions, publications, and research time and found a gap of $12,194 in yearly salaries between men and women, or 93 cents versus a dollar. (That falls to 83 cents if you don’t make all the adjustments for specialty, rank and research time.)
In addition, I wrote recently about a survey by Dice, a career website specializing in tech jobs, which found no gender pay gap in the tech sector if you control for education, level of experience and job titles. But the Dice numbers also show that in the big picture, women in tech make less than men. In the field overall, men still earn more than women, an average of $95,900 versus $87,500 for women. Still, that’s only a 9-cent gap.
“We’re not trying to whitewash the fact that there may be a problem out there,” says Independent Women’s Forum director Sabrina Schaeffer. “We’re trying to keep it in proportion and not emphasize the notion that there is a dramatic disparity between what women are paid and what men are paid.” Schaeffer adds that women’s reluctance to negotiate for raises could explain some of the pay disparity.
Back in 1963, President Kennedy signed a law called the Equal Pay Act, an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act aimed at ending pay discrimination based on sex. At the time, women were making 59 cents on the dollar compared with men, according to government figures. Presumably that number was not calibrated for education, experience and job type. Now liberal groups are pushing a piece of legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has been stalled in Congress since 1997. Its key provision would prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay with coworkers. About half of workplaces have punitive pay secrecy policies, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. Though to me it sounds like a commonsense measure, it seems like a small step to close a wide gulf.
What are we to make of the competing studies and arguments about whether sex and race discrimination exist in the workplace? I think it’s valuable to consider Schaeffer’s points, but to me, the big picture is the most important thing. As the National Partnership for Women & Families points out, 15 million women in the U.S. head their households and more than 30% of those families live in poverty. Those women don’t have the luxury of going back to school and they aren’t in a position to change corporate policies that make it tough for women to get the time and the support they need to care for their children. The disparity in pay for African-American and Hispanic women is even more alarming and unfortunately, not easily fixed by further legislation.
I am hoping that the increased attention to this issue means that young women will feel more motivated to earn degrees in fields like engineering and economics that promise more lucrative careers. I hope that women don’t slow themselves down by buying into the ingrained sexism that prevents them from trying to get promoted to senior positions or to negotiate for higher salaries. At the same time I support any woman’s decision to take time off from work to care for children or other relatives. Schaeffer’s argument has some merit, but I think there is no question that racism and sexism still exist in the workplace. I’m not sure that further legislation is the fix to this problem. Heightened consciousness, spurred by the debate we’re having on Equal Pay Day, can help close the pay gap.