The Wage Gap



Around the same time that it was revealed
that Naomi Wolf, the feminist and author, was acting as an advisor for Al
Gore and being paid $20,000 a month, Oxygen network for women was launching
its first ad campaign. “Men,” the billboards nearly cooed, “another
great reason to be a woman” or “First off the lifeboats, another
great…” Although the channel is feministy, they missed the obvious
corollary ads, especially: “The wage gap, another great reason to be
a man.”


Equal pay for equal work is the number one benefit that women want, according
to the 1999 AFL-CIO’s “Ask A Working Woman Survey” and virtually
every other poll. In fact, it’s the least controversial goal of the women’s
movement, the one you hear as part of the sentence “I’m not a feminist
but…I believe in equal pay for equal work.”


So, how are we doing? Ellen Bravo, co-director of the working women’s
advocacy group 9 to 5, looked at how close we are to that goal in the December/January
2000 issue of Ms. and reported that across the board women still make
a lot less: 74 percent of what men make and more like 64 percent for women
of color who work full-time.


Furthermore, where we are closer to parity, it’s in low wage jobs (also
known as “women’s work”). Women in executive, administrative,
and managerial position make 68 percent of what their male counterparts bring
home while secretaries, stenographers, and typists, for example, make 90 percent
of the male salary. Female general surgeons take home 77 percent of what the
average male general surgeon makes while RNs make 95 percent. Legal assistants
actually break the “Men Must Make More” rule with women making 104
percent of what male paralegals bring home. Of course, that’s 104 percent
of $30,000 a year—less than half of what a male lawyer makes—$70,200.
The wage gap is right back in place for the female lawyer who makes, on average,
$49,000 (70 cents to the male dollar).


There are a variety of theories to excuse these discrepancies, among them,
that women “choose” bad pay because they want flexibility to care
for their families (and take more time off to do things like that) and that
women haven’t been in the workforce long enough to have attained the
high paying jobs. These excuses ignore the reality that hardly any women—or
men—have adequate flexibility to attend to family obligations, as Bravo
points out. As for tenure in the workforce, it’s hard to argue that men
have much more seniority in the web world, an industry which has only been
in existence for a relatively short time, but women still make 88 percent
of what men make.


When most people learn about these inequities they are uniformly and justifiably
appalled. Most people thought that unequal pay went away with the Equal Pay
Act of 1965 and didn’t realize that the act only covered men and women
in the exact same jobs (and, as evidenced by Bravo’s tally, doesn’t
appear to be enforced).


Of course, people are stepping up to the plate to change their situations
and the present state of women’s work. For instance, the Women Count
Network, coordinated by the Wages for Housework Campaign, is attributing a
value to unwaged work, which is especially critical in divorce, injury, or
wrongful death litigation, and achieving self-respect. (Britain already acknowledges
unpaid work, as do other countries, but not the U.S.) Sen. Harkin (D-IA) sponsored
the Fair Pay Act, which mandates disclosure of pay statistics on how much
companies pay men versus women and introduces the idea of comparable worth
into law. Therefore, a nurse at a state hospital could get paid the same as
a tree trimmer or a daycare worker the same as a maintenance person. Building
on this proposition, the AFL-CIO has launched a state-by-state push to introduce
legislation modeled on the toothy Fair Pay Act. (It is currently in play in
about 25 states.) President Clinton has recently committed $27 million toward
closing the wage gap. Ten million dollars will go to the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission to train inspectors and educate employers on the law
(there is a three-year backlog of cases at present) and $17 million will go
the Department of Labor for training women in jobs where they have been under-represented.


But, as experience has proved, it’s not enough to legislate equal pay,
we have to believe that “women’s work” (child care, book-keeping,
public relations) is as valuable as the traditionally male professions (athletic
coach, accounting, investment banking). Looking a bit more closely at our
own jobs, or what we do now that hasn’t traditionally qualified as a
job, we might find that our own pay gap is legitimate grounds for a lawsuit
with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or, at least, raising a stink
at work. A friend who works at a lefty weekly in New York, for example, told
us that during union negotiations she was shocked to find that a male associate
editor made $28,000 while a female associate editor made $24,000. Jennifer
has to push editors at Condé Nast and Hearst magazines to pay her $1.50
a word (and often gets a $1.00 instead) while a male colleague of her close
acquaintance makes $2.00 a word, or more. Every day Amy receives e-mails at
her on-line feminist advice column, “Ask Amy,” from women who are
experiencing job discrimination: A lady truck driver who can’t find a
way to work and raise her four teenage daughters, but whose ex-husband doesn’t
have the same worries; a female hospital director who retired and was replaced
by a man who earned $4,000 more annually; and a female construction worker
who was refused equal pay because she wouldn’t sleep with her supervisor.


Meanwhile, Amy, who is an activist and often unremunerated for much of her
work, got her start in politics as an unpaid assistant for Senator Ted Kennedy.
There was a guy in Kennedy’s office in her same position; except he was
paid. My sister recently got a job at an on-line magazine as an editorial
assistant and was told that, despite her last job as an assistant editor,
they weren’t going to hire any assistant editors yet. Two months later
they hired a guy, who was younger and had less experience, as assistant editor.


Back to our socialized attitudes: maybe we take less because we are disproportionately
grateful for the few things we get for free—like Ladies Night where girls
drink lite beer on the house or the few times we get comped into a club. This
seems to be the problem with the Oxygen ads. It advocates reveling in a pretty
minor perk. To get a fresh perspective on the economics of being female, we
propose reversing the perk of Ladies Night and making it a penalty—on
economic sexism. According to our plan, men should pay 25 percent more for
drinks, coffee, movie tickets, subway fare, CDs, sandwiches at lunch, cigarettes—you
name it.


Like Ladies Night, the Guy Penalty does nothing to actually equalize the wage
gap. But it does point out that sexism in wages is a great big coupon for
men. Rather than lambasting Wolf or taking comfort in the fun parts of inequality,
the Guy Penalty says expose the injustice and make men pay for it. Except,
of course, if he’s a paralegal.                    Z


Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’s book, Manifesta:
Young Women, Feminism, and the Future
, is forthcoming next fall
from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.