Monday, February 1, 2010

Women At Work - Same Song, Second Verse

Remember Lilly Ledbetter? At age 41 she took a job as a manager at Goodyear Tire and Rubber and worked there until her retirement 20 years later. When she retired she was the only woman in her position – the rest being men, of course. Near the close of her tenure someone slipped her an anonymous note telling her she was making significantly less in salary than her male counterparts. Ms. Ledbetter took the company to court, where a jury found in her favor.
The facts were pretty clear – the only factor differentiating her and her fellow managers was her gender. Here’s the kicker though. Goodyear appealed and the U.S. Supreme court ruled in their favor. Apparently, according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Ms. Ledbetter was required to file a claim no less than 180 days after the first time she experienced discrimination. Um, really? Let’s review. She did not know about the discrimination for 20 years. The company kept salaries a closely guarded secret. There was no way for her to know how her salary or annual raises compared to her co-workers until that anonymous note 20 years later. There is now a new law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which resets the 180 day statute of limitations with each new discriminatory paycheck.

Think this was an isolated case? Maybe it was more egregious than most, but yes, boys and girls, there is still a significant wage gap between men and women in the wonderful world of work. In the last census, records show that the median income for men was $38,000, and the median income for women was $26,000. If I wasn’t so math-phobic I’d take the time to figure out what percentage difference that is. It’s significant, I can tell you that much. In management-related professional positions, where 51% of workers are women, the median income is $63,000 for men and $42,000 for women. Ouch!

Ms. Ledbetter’s case brings up an interesting point regarding equal pay – the total wage gap between men and women over a lifetime of work. She was estimated to have lost over $400,000 in wages due to the difference in pay. Today, the average wage gap for women in Oklahoma over a lifetime is $387,000 for high school graduates and $601,000 for college graduates. I guess the good news is that Oklahoma has a smaller wage gap than many other states.

Women are more likely to work part-time or take extended periods of time away from work to care for children or other family members. The census numbers are supposed to be adjusted for that fact, but it’s inevitably another reason why wages differ. Here’s one that will chap your hide. Men with children earn 2% more than men without children. Women with children earn 2.5% less than women with children.

It’s a wacky world of work out there! Like many Generation Jones women my age, I could be the poster child for the seasons of women at work. During college I interned with IBM, which was a really big deal in the early eighties. At that time the successful, quickly advancing women in the office were mainly single. The few who had children and a husband came to work exhausted with harrowing tales of daycare drama and midnight crying babies. I couldn’t bring myself to invest the time and energy in what appeared to be a lifetime commitment to this world-wide company. After all, having babies and growing a family was high on my list.

Four years later – now working for a small business, I worked until the day I went into labor and was back on the job six weeks after the birth of my first child. There was a house to buy, my husband was laid off and out of a job for a few months when Angela was an infant…life was life. For the next seven years or so I juggled work with motherhood, trying things like working part time, working from home and starting my own business. You name it, I tried it in an effort to be the primary caretaker of my two daughters.

When I went “back to work” full time I accepted a job where I was, in my own humble estimation, over-qualified and under-paid because of my lack of a track record. I had done all of the things mentioned above, plus having lived and worked overseas, been innovative, creative, entrepreneurial. But I had not been employed in a traditional 8-5, Monday thru Friday, backside in a chair kind of job. What I lacked in experience I attempted to make up in education, earning my Master’s in Business Administration while working full-time and keeping up with two very active children, church, my marriage. The same things many of you Gen X and Gen Y-ers are doing right now.

So after caring for the nation’s children and attempting to find a balance that keeps us from being institutionalized, we find we are quite literally undervalued in the world of work. Pay is the definer of value in that world. Paying women less than men sends the clear message that a woman working is of less value than a man working.

Paying women less than men helps no one and hurts everyone. Men surely prefer that if their wives work they get paid equally. Children whose mothers work outside the home benefit from equal pay. And women, of course, deserve to be paid equally for equal work.

So how do we fix this? Is there a fix? I guess I hope that each new generation is more enlightened than the one before in terms of race and gender issues. Just as each new generation becomes, at least in theory, more color blind, each new generation hopefully becomes ignorant of past reasons to under-pay and under-value. Is that wishful thinking?

And another thing while I’m rolling along here. Can we just get rid of that taboo that keeps pay rates locked away in the file cabinets and in the board rooms? Transparency is key. Let’s get salaries out into the bright light of day and keep each other honest. It’s the best way to correct the inequality and helps us avoid another Lilly Ledbetter.

T-shirt from Photos of women at work from the Library of Congress archives. Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.


Stephen said...

Shari once hit me over the head with a large hymnal when I made some asinine, sexist remark in my teens. Let's just say she made an impression.

At the risk of another bashing, I can't help but think of (my partner) Rudy, who chose to give up on a career in favor of being a stay home dad. When he's ready to go back, he'll be lucky to make half what he formerly made - maybe a fifth or sixth of what I now make. More significantly, he'll never catch up. Same story with our friends Kristi and Ben - parents of our godchildren. Ben quit working to provide a better environment for their two children. By doing so, his career is pretty well sunk and he'll never come close to making what Kristi does.
Is it at least possible that the inequity is not just male vs. female, but that we don't value a person's contribution to family/society as much as corporate servitude?
I'm guessing your earning potential is considerably greater than Mark's - if for no other reason than that you can hold down a job. Shari probably makes twice as much as Gene. And if the wage gap is less in Oklahoma than other states, I'm betting it's not because of Oklahoma's unusually progressive culture. The argument just doesn't hold water.

Remember when I kicked that birdhouse that had a wasp nest in it? Ducking and covering...

Shari said...

You can go on-line and look up the salaries of every school administrator in the state (as in most states)and the teacher salary scale is on the web site. So at least it's transparent.The teacher scale is based on how many years you have taught full time and how much education you have. So if you take 7 or 10 or 20 years off you never will catch up unless you swith to admin, which doesn't really have a scale. (DOn't do it! Run away!!)) If you spend 10 years in business and then become a teacher, you never will catch up either.

The sad thing about Okie teacher pay is that there's not a big gap between beginners and 25 year veterans as far as pay scale. So it's not THAT big a deal to miss a few years. In Cali, the difference could be 40K, so it did matter.

Hit you with a hymnal...hmm?