The summer before my senior year in high school, my mom saw a newspaper ad that said, “Hiring 100 employees.” A new grocery in Boulder was having a job fair. We were both excited because the grocery store was close, and I wanted to work part-time to earn money for college and gain some work experience. This would be the perfect place for me to have my first job.
When I got to the new grocery store, I felt nervous. I met the store director. He asked me a few questions and said that since I wasn’t eighteen years old the only position available to me was Courtesy Clerk (someone who bags and restocks groceries, cleans the store, etc.). When I got home, I filled out the store’s online application as I had been instructed. When I was asked how much I wanted to be paid, I put down $9.00 per hour.
A few days later, the store director called. I got the job! He told me that he liked me so much in the interview that he would pay me what I asked for, $9.00 per hour. I began work about a month later and loved it! However, when I received my first paycheck, I noticed I was only being paid $8.50 per hour. I met with the store director to let him know that a mistake had been made; he was paying me the wrong amount. He responded that he never said he’d pay me $9.00 per hour. I felt confused and embarrassed. I thought I must have misheard him.
When I got home from work, I talked to my mom about the conversation with the store director. Mom recalled how I had leaped into the air after I found out I was going to be hired AND get paid what I’d asked for. So store director HAD originally told me $9.00 per hour. I wondered why he was messing with my mind. Mom suggested I ask other Courtesy Clerks to see what they were being paid. I started asking around and discovered that everyone in my position was making $9.00 per hour except for me. Plus the other clerks were boys, my age, with the same amount of experience as I had. That is, none. Was there gender bias in my pay?
I felt angry and decided to talk to the store director once more. Again, I asked to be paid $9.00 per hour, letting him know that it was what the other Courtesy Clerks were earning. Again, he said no. This time, he said that I was being paid less because I had less job experience. Although I knew this wasn’t true, I didn’t know what to say. I felt frustrated, but thanked him and went back to work. A few minutes later, the store director came back and told me after thinking about our conversation, he might consider raising my wage if I agreed to take on additional duties and my direct supervisor said I worked hard. At first this sounded good to me. But my mom pointed out that I shouldn’t have to work even harder than the others, or add job duties to earn the $9.00 per hour my peers were already earning.
A month-and-a-half has passed since that second conversation and I’m still earning $8.50 per hour without the store director ever taking further action. I think a large part of the reason he is underpaying me is because I am a young woman. I believe he thinks he can get away with paying me less because I’m not likely to confront him. I wondered, is this a common experience? Are other women also payed less than their male counterparts? I turned to four seasoned women who were willing to share their stories regarding pay.
Maureen Eldredge, now a lawyer, had a summer job as a college student doing fieldwork testing soils. “I was pretty happy to be making more than minimum wage at the time ($5.50), until I found out that a guy hired shortly after me, also a college student, was making a dollar more an hour than me. I asked him why, and he said that he had just asked for the higher wage when they offered him the job, and they agreed. He made it sound easy.” Eldredge didn’t know that she could negotiate for a higher wage because no one taught her to advocate for herself.
My mom, Ann Zelnio, was finance director of the City of Golden from 1988 to 1995. When she left, she was making $58,000. However, the man who was hired to replace her was paid $72,000. He was less qualified, yet was paid 24% more with no additional job responsibilities. “When I originally took the job, I was so excited to be hired as the first woman on the City’s executive team, I never even thought of negotiating for more than what was offered.”
A third woman, Susan Zelnio, worked at a large manufacturing company in the 1990s. “I found out after four months that I was not earning the same amount as a male in a similar position. The company had done a study and realized it.” The company then did the right thing and gave her a 40% raise to equal things out from that time onward, but did not give her the lost wages or retirement contributions for the four months she was being underpaid.
A retired Treasurer and Executive Vice President of a Fortune 500 company, speaking on condition of anonymity stated, “In my own case I believe I did not have the same opportunities as my fellow male peers did so while the job I did was fairly compensated, I did not have the opportunity for as rapid advancement as they did and that limited my wage earning potential.”
Of the four women I spoke with, each had encountered gender pay inequity in one form or another. I learned my situation is not unique. Is there gender equality in pay received by men and women in the USA in 2016? The answer is no. In an October 27, 2016 article in the Huffington Post, Women Work More Hours Than Men, Get Paid Less by Emily Peck, “Men out-earn women. Women in the U.S earn 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Women around the world earn on average $11,000 a year, compared to $20,000 for men.” In some cases, the difference is even more egregious. In 2015 “the head coach for the U.S Men’s National (Soccer) Team earned a salary of $3.2 million; the head coach for the women’s team made a whopping $185,000,” according to Women’s Soccer Is Done Playing Nice by Chloe Schama on July 6, 2016. This, in spite of the fact that the men’s team lost $1 million and the women’s team made a profit of $5 million that year.
Even when we compare workers with similar age, education and years of experience, adjusted for differences in factors designed to make an apples-to-apples comparison between workers, the U.S. gender pay gap is still about 5.4% in 2016 per New Research: Demystifying the Gender Pay Gap by Dr. Andrew Chamberlain, published in March 2016. This 5.4% measures the real cost of discrimination against women in pay; nothing (not seniority, not education, not experience, not type of work, not location, etc.) else is left after the adjustment. 5.4% doesn’t sound like much. But, when you take the median wage paid to a man in 2015 of $46,540 (U.S. Dept of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics), 5.4% less means that a woman takes home $2,500 less in wages, $250 less in retirement funding and $155 less in Social Security contributions each year. Multiply this out over a career of 30 years and a woman takes home $87,150 less in wages and retirement contributions. This makes a very large decrease in the standard of living for a woman vs. a man working the exact same job.
The situation is worse for women of color. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), “Hispanic women have the lowest median earnings at $566 per week, or 56.3% of the earnings of white men. Black women have median weekly earnings at $615 or 61.2%. Asian women have median weekly earnings at $877 or 87.3%.” Additionally, where you live makes a huge difference. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) states, “In 2015 the pay gap was smallest in New York, where women working full-time, year-round were paid 89% of what men were paid. The largest gap was in Wyoming, where women were paid 64% of what men were paid.” In Colorado, women were paid only 81% of what men were paid. This shows that there is pay inequity for American women overall, by race, and by geographical location.
Why does this drastic inequity still exist? There is a complicated matrix of factors, but experts cite several main reasons. At the top of the list is discrimination. According to Under The Bus by Caroline Fredrickson 40% of the gender wage difference is due to direct discrimination, not due to how much work experience or education a woman has or the type of job. Nothing affects a woman in the workplace more than being treated unequally because of her gender. Fredrickson explains, “Employers are paying women less just because they are women.” Women who step forward to bring their case to courts to get justice are often thwarted. Fredrickson gives an example, “For Lilly Ledbetter’s entire career, her bosses had sliced a percentage off her salary because she was a woman. She sued, taking her case all the way to the Supreme Court. In an outrageous miscarriage of justice, the conservative majority on the court told Ledbetter “tough luck.”” Courts cannot be depended upon to help women achieve pay equity and stop discrimination.
Gender pay inequity also still exists because women need flexibility in order to fulfill care-giving responsibilities. This causes them to “shoot low” and take a less meaningful and less compensated job than they are capable of. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, women still do the bulk of unpaid work, including “child-rearing, cleaning, cooking and caring for the elderly. The fact that so many women are pulling double shifts of unpaid and paid labor is painful for the entire economy: It means women choose to work fewer hours, take less demanding jobs or leave the workforce entirely.”
Next up is the persistent gender segregation of the workforce. Traditional women’s jobs pay less than traditional men’s jobs. The top occupations for women are teachers, nurses, administrative assistants, cashiers, retail salespersons, waitresses, maids and housekeepers, bookkeepers and personal care aides. The top occupations for men are drivers, construction workers, managers, sales representatives, janitors, cooks, mechanics, software engineers, and chief executives. These jobs display the stereotypical fields of work men and women tend to go into. According to the IWPR, “women earn less than men in all but two of the most common occupations for women, and less than men in all of the most common occupations for men.”
So, why don’t more women work in traditionally male occupations? First, we are all influenced by what our society thinks are appropriate jobs for us. And second, we feel hostility from our peers when we go into a non-traditional career. Here is Shane LaSaint-Bell’s 2015 interview, as documented in Under the Bus, “The minute I lit a torch and started cutting metal, I fell in love with it. (But) the hostility and discrimination I faced every day on the job shocked me. On the construction site, men don’t see you as a plumber or as an electrician – they only see you as a women who shouldn’t be there. Women are groped, grabbed, and relentlessly harassed. A lot of women leave the job before a year is out. I’m frustrated by constantly having to prove myself just to be considered a player in the game. And even then, I don’t get the opportunities to advance that I deserve.”
Another reason there is pay inequity is because women haven’t been mentored in how to advocate for themselves in the work space. They have a cultural tendency to accept what is offered and not to negotiate for a higher salary because they don’t know they can. If they do try to negotiate, then they often get blamed for being too “harsh” or “aggressive” and are penalized in the workplace culture while if men negotiate, they are considered savvy. “Women can’t play hardball because there’s often a backlash,” according to Nancy Rothbard, a professor at Wharton. According to the woman who was an Executive Vice President of a Fortune 500 company, “I did not negotiate until very late in my career. For most of my career, male or female, you accepted what was offered. It wasn’t until I was in my early 50’s that I learned that I could negotiate in the workplace. Alas, too late.”
The secrecy in organizational pay structures prevents women from knowing that they are being underpaid. Eldredge believes that “greater transparency in what people are paid at companies would help. Part of the problem is knowing what is being paid generally, and whether there are differences between men and women. If people had this knowledge, they could be empowered to ask for more money, and protest unfair discrepancies in wages.”
Connections and relationships in the workplace often provide workers a path to promotion and higher pay. Women are often excluded from joining men in work-related social situations that would build these useful connections. S. Zelnio recollects, “When I was the only female in a workgroup, most of the team would go to lunch together—without me. I had to literally jump in front of them and say ‘Oh, are you going to lunch? Let me get my purse.’” Additionally, according to the Fortune 500 Executive Vice President, “Men are typically promoted on potential, women on experience. I saw this over and over again during my career both inside my company and outside of it.”
Perhaps the most persuasive reason that the gender pay gap still exists is that employers pay women less because they know they can. Paying less saves companies money. The author of Ask a Headhunter, Nick Cordodilos, states that experts blame women’s “personalities, cognitive styles or biological characteristics. But (they) are all wrong. It isn’t women’s behavior that’s the problem. Employers pay women less to do the same work that men do. The employer decides whom to hire and how much to pay.”
What can be done to gain equal pay for both genders? Cordodilos believes that companies should be required to disclose salaries for women and salaries for men currently working at the company and doing the same job. That way, a woman could continue her job search until she found a company that pays genders equitably. The AAUW believes that companies that care should conduct salary audits to proactively monitor and address gender pay differences.
Individual women can learn strategies to always negotiate compensation. They can learn how to self-advocate for promotions. Women can also research what their job offers and how their job’s benefit system works. Women should know their rights and what they are entitled to before advocating. Early in her Human Resources career, S. Zelnio realized she had to advocate for herself with each new job she sought. When she receives a job offer and then negotiates, “I usually am very prepared when I go for more money with a list of everything I have accomplished. There is always something that I can ask for by being well prepared.”
Cordodilos suggests that women should just quit when they discover they are being underpaid and go work for a company that offers them more money. In fact, millennial women are doing just that, unlike their predecessors. Soraya Chemaly in What’s Your Kids Wage Gap? Boys Paid More, More Profitably written in March, 2015 believes that pay equity must start in childhood. The culture which breeds pay inequality starts at home with inequitable distribution of unpaid chores between partners. Women still do the bulk of unpaid labor at home. These partners are then modeling that culture to their children, who carry it forward into their adult lives. Women should ensure unpaid work in the home is equally distributed between both partners and that children of both genders do equal amounts of both traditionally male and traditionally female chores.
Government policies can relieve the burden of unpaid work for child- and elder-care that falls disproportionately on women by creating public-paid childcare from age two on, and eldercare. Unpaid care for a newborn is also an issue. Peck states that the U.S is “one of a handful of countries that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave which forces women and men to make some truly painful choices in order to have children.” Government policies should also enforce the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, both of which require women to be treated equally. These laws also need to be strengthened so they apply to all employers, even small employers; farm workers; nannies; housekeepers and cleaners; employees who earn tips; and personal aide workers.
After learning this information about gender pay inequity, I feel horrified. When I started to work at my first job I was naïve and had no idea there could possibly ever be a problem with my pay. After unsuccessfully trying to negotiate my salary, interviewing other women who have also experienced pay inequity and by learning more through research of the state of pay inequities between the genders, my eyes are opened and they don’t like what they see. I don’t know what I’m going to do about my job at the grocery store. I like working there, but want to work at a place where they pay equitably for the same job whether it’s a young woman or a young man doing the work.
According to the IWPR, “More than fifty years after the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination illegal, a gender earnings gap remains. Our analysis shows that women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in 18 of the 20 most common occupations for women, all of the most common occupations for men, and, indeed, in almost all occupations for which a gender wage gap can be calculated.” The U.S comes in at number 45 on the World Economic Forum’s ranking of countries with gender gaps. 44 countries are more equitable to women than the U.S. The IWPR has determined that at our current rate of progress women will not achieve pay equity with men until the year 2152, almost seven generations from now. This mean our great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughters might be the first to earn as much as their male peers for doing the same job. This is not acceptable. Equity must come sooner. If you are a woman, do not accept being underpaid relative to your male peers, ever. If you are a man, actively support equal pay for the women who do the same job as you. Take a stand and help pay equity be achieved in the span of your career.