Guest Editorial: Equal Pay Day

By on April 12, 2012

by Nancy Dietrich
There’s no doubt that women have made great strides the past 50 years.

“Help wanted—male/Help wanted—female” ads are a thing of the past. Women can get a mortgage without having a male co-signer. More women are seeking higher degrees in nontraditional fields like medicine and law than ever before. However, we still have work to do before we can say women have reached equality. One of the most visible discrepancies between men and women is in wages. On average, women must work more than three months longer to make the same wages as men. Equal Pay Day, the date when women’s wages catch up to men’s from the year before, is being observed April 17.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women make 77 cents for every dollar men make. Many reasons have been cited for this disparity, including women’s career choices and women taking time out of their careers to raise children. However, research by the American Association of University Women shows that just one year out of college (when most women have not yet had children), women in the U.S. working full time are already earning only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics also show that women make less money in almost every occupation tracked, meaning that even in traditionally female occupations, women still make less money than men. So, one can’t explain the discrepancies solely on women’s choices.

Double standards still exist regarding appropriate behavior by women and men in the workplace, which contributes to lower wages and fewer promotional opportunities for women. Research by Hannah Riley Bowles, associate professor at Harvard, revealed that when women asked their bosses for a raise, it was typically looked at negatively; yet being assertive about asking for more money is continually cited as one of the things women need to do to reduce the wage gap. Research discussed in the book “Delusions of Gender,” by Cordelia Fine, also shows a “Catch-22″ situation: If women behave in an assertive fashion on the job, they’re considered too aggressive. Yet, if women don’t show qualities like confidence or ambition, they are seen to not have the right qualities for a leadership position.

In other examples of gender bias cited in Delusions of Gender, a study asked 100 university psychologists to rate the resumes of “Dr. Karen Miller” and “Dr. Brian Miller,” fictional applicants for a tenure track university position. Although the resumes were identical except for the name, Brian was perceived to have better qualifications for the position than Karen, by both male and female evaluators. Similarly, another researcher noted that in a study with men who had sex changes (from women to men), many immediately enjoyed greater respect and recognition, including one man who heard a colleague praising his boss for “getting rid of Susan” and hiring this new man, who he thought was much more competent. These internal, often unconscious, biases serve to keep the glass ceiling for women firmly in place.

So what can we do about it? Here’s how to help Equal Pay Day become a thing of the past:

1. Vote. Support legislators who support equal pay for equal work policies.

2. Support salary transparency, including lifting the “gag rule” that exists in many companies (the gag rule means employees are not allowed to disclose their wages to other employees). Making all salaries public would go even further to discourage wage discrimination.

3. Women: Negotiate your salary, starting from your first job. You’ll be a pioneer, meaning there may be some negative fallout at first. But as more women negotiate, it will become seen as part of the normal hiring process.

4. We need to be more aware of our own attitudes about appropriate gender roles, and confront bias when we see it. For example, if you perceive a woman as being too aggressive, ask yourself, “If this were a man, would I consider this behavior too aggressive?” As noted above, internal bias with which we’re socialized can penalize women (and in different situations, men), so we need to become aware of and change this within ourselves.

Let’s work together to make Equal Pay Day the same day for women—as it is for men.

Dietrich is co-president of the Champaign-Urbana branch of American Association of University Women, and is a member of the AAUW Voices Project. She lives in Urbana, Ill.