Making a real difference on the job isn’t easy.
But what better legacy to leave to your daughters, nieces,
granddaughters, and younger friends than to
eliminate the wage gap, once and for all?
How much money are you losing because you’re not paid fairly? Most working women today, if they’re over thirty, would probably blurt out: No. A man would be getting more.
Their intuitive sense is borne out by the facts. Women working full time—not part time, not on maternity leave, not as consultants—still earn only 77 cents for every full-time male dollar. The wage gap has been stalled for more than a decade. It exists between women and men working at every economic level, from waitresses to corporate lawyers, from nurse’s aides to CEOs.
Very few individual women can ever find out exactly what their male counterparts would be making in the same job. But that yawning gap between the average male and average female paycheck is a pretty good clue that he’d be paid more.
What Does the Wage Gap Mean to You?
If you’re a woman, what would you do with that extra 23 cents—an increase of nearly one-third on top of your current 77-cent paycheck—a raise that got you even with men? That 23-cent gender wage gap is a personal gap in each woman’s life: vacations not taken, or dental work that’s put off, or lessons that her children are denied.
Few women think about it this way. Women don’t talk about what they should have earned, or how each year’s missing lump of money—whether one thousand, ten thousand, or fifty thousand—would have added up over her lifetime. Surely that attitude is personally sensible: no sane person wants to dwell on what she believes she can’t have. But we’re not going to close the gender wage gap until women realize how much it’s costing us and our families. So let’s add it up over a lifetime:
- If you’re a young woman who graduated last summer from high school, you will earn $700,000 less than the young man standing in line with you to get his diploma over your working life.
- If you graduated from college, you’ll lose $1.2 million compared to the man getting his degree along with you.
- If you graduated from law school, medical school, or got an MBA last summer, you’ll lose $2 million over your lifetime.
That money represents food you can’t buy, credit cards you can’t pay off, lessons your children won’t have, retirement savings you can’t put away.
Little Discrepancies Add Up
Of course, your losses aren’t subtracted in one lump sum. That money disappears over time, in little nicks to your paycheck. Maybe you were hired for $1,000 less than the young man who took the same entry level job. Or you got a smaller year-end bonus because you and the man working alongside you were awarded bonuses as percentage of salary--and his salary is larger. Or you had to wait longer for a promotion because you had to prove yourself first, while your male colleague was promoted and given a raise based on his potential. Or you were passed over for a project that would have brought in a large bonus, because the boss assumed you had to go home and cook for your family.
Each such loss accrues. Many of us have seen those investment charts that show how much $1,000 invested today would turn into over ten or twenty or thirty years. That’s what happens to the money you weren’t paid: it doesn’t just add up, it multiplies over time.
Causes (or Excuses) for the Wage Gap
Why do you and other women lose so much money? Decades ago, women used to hear that it was because women weren’t as well-educated as men, hadn’t worked as long as men, didn’t work as hard as men, or really didn’t need the money because they were just working until they got married. That’s no longer true. For decades, women have been graduating from college at the same rate as men —and have even surpassed men in recent years. Women work as hard as men. Women are often supporting children, and maybe a disabled or unemployed husband, and need the money just as much as men do. Often, married couples rely on both paychecks. The only demographic difference between male and female workers is a small, and closing, difference in the length of years women have worked in their careers. That cannot account for 23 cents.
Today, many people believe that the wage gap is caused by women who drop out of the workforce to have children. But that can’t be true. The gender wage gap is figured by comparing the earnings of all women who work full-time with the earnings of all men who work full-time. If a woman is not working full-time, her wages (or lack thereof) are not included in wage gap calculations. Others believe that women’s wages are dragged down by the fact that some women stop working full-time, and then return to work years later at a lower rate of pay. But that idea is wrong, too. Yes, some women do drop out to raise children. But who in America can afford to do that nowadays? Only the highest-educated women—lawyers, doctors, MBAs—who have high-earning husbands can afford to do that. But these women make up fewer than one percent of the 44 million women who are working full time and year round. They make much more than the middle-earning women who pull in $31,000 each year. When the higher-earning women reenter the workforce after raising children, their professional salaries (even if less than they might have been otherwise) probably increase rather than decrease women’s average wages.
Let's Call It What It Is: Discrimination
It’s time to stop blaming women for the gender wage gap. It’s not our fault. Why do women earn 23 cents less than men? Here’s why: Simply because we’re women. And that’s unfair. It’s illegal. It’s discrimination.
What kind of discrimination?
- Plain old discrimination
- Discrimination by sexual harassment
- Discrimination by sex segregation
- Working while female
- Discrimination against mothers
Go to www.wageproject.org and look at the sex discrimination case file. You’ll see how widespread sex discrimination is—and how often employers would rather pay a one-time fine rather than actually make changes in their organizations that would be fair to women. Or glance at the book Getting Even, which looks into sex discrimination in great detail. What you’ll find is that illegal sex discrimination is rife all across the American workplace, at every economic level, from secretary to CEO. There’s plain old discrimination, which openly bans women from hiring and advancement, or fires women who get pregnant. There’s discrimination by sexual harassment, which terrorizes women and drives them out of jobs. There’s discrimination by sex segregation, which slots women into job categories that are consistently underpaid. There’s working while female, our term for the every day discrimination in which women get overlooked, underappreciated, and consistently paid less than their male colleagues. There’s discrimination against mothers, which forces women (and not men) to pay for parenting. All this scrapes away women’s earnings, day after day, year after year, throughout our lives.
This means the only way to get your paycheck even with men’s is to change the American workplace. If you think you’re being paid unfairly, or if you know other women who are, go to www.wageproject.org. Read the accounts of other women who faced similar situations. Use the wage calculator to figure out more accurately how much you’re losing over a lifetime—not on average, but taking into account your job, your education, your part of the country. That information will help motivate you—and will give you a useful tool for making change down the road.
Then start a WAGE Club. Talk about your working conditions with friends. On the WAGE Project website, you’ll find a discussion guide. Use it to spark discussions about your working conditions and your earnings, and to help you work with other women and men to make sure women are paid fairly. If every one of us acts—and acts now—to get paid fairly, all of us can eliminate the gender wage gap within a decade.
Making a real difference on the job isn’t easy. But what better legacy to leave to your daughters, nieces, granddaughters, and younger friends than to eliminate the wage gap, once and for all?
Evelyn Murphy is the former Lt. Governor of Massachusetts—the first woman in the state’s 200 year history to hold a constitutional office. Evelyn Murphy is Founder and President of The WAGE Project, Inc. and Resident Scholar in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University where she researched Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men and What to Do About It, by Evelyn Murphy with E.J. Graff, published by Simon & Schuster in October 2005. The WAGE Project is a national organization dedicated to getting women paid like men.
E.J. Graff, a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, is an author and journalist. Her work appears in such publications as The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, Ms., The Nation, The New Republic, The Village Voice, Salon.com, The Women’s Review of Books, and in more than a dozen anthologies. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.