Laura Dravenstott: Pay and sexism alive and well |

Laura Dravenstott: Pay and sexism alive and well

When I discussed pay inequity data with different women in preparation for Equal Pay Day, I received versions of the following responses:

“The economy is not what it used to be.”

“You should expect to make less because you’ve been out of the work force having kids.”

“It can’t be that bad.”

Well, it IS bad. Women actually lost one cent on the dollar between 2007 and 2009 (from 78 cents to 77 cents). When we mark Equal Pay Day on April 12, we “celebrate” the day when, after working nearly 15 and a half months, women’s 2010 wages finally match what their male counterparts earned in that calendar year. The men have been earning 2011 wages since Jan. 1, of course, but we’re way behind.

In Colorado, female college grads aged 25 and older take home a median income of $50,000 a year; their male counterparts take home $71,000. For those of you not in the field of mathematics (where pay is generally more equitable), that means women are earning 70 percent of what men earn. This gap puts Colorado 37th in the country.

An extra $21,000 a year would come in handy, but what about the fact that women often take time out of the work force to have and raise children? The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has found that after factoring in hours, occupation, parenthood and other elements known to affect earnings, there is still an unexplained gap in income. After reviewing this data, one veteran of the financial services industry conceded, “There’s still a degree of sexism in some jobs.”

Yes, indeed. Even more illustrative of gender bias is the comparison between wages among people fresh out of college, when childrearing is not a common factor. AAUW researchers found that female graduates working full time earn 80 percent of what their male counterparts earn – just one year after graduation. It’s more difficult to pay off college loans and get started in the world when you earn just $4 out of every $5 that your similarly-educated male friends earn.

If you are not a college graduate, the wage gap is a little better, though median incomes are much lower. Colorado ranks 17th overall in the gender wage gap of all workers aged 16 and older ($47,270 median wages for men, compared to $36,618 for women). But what does this gap mean, exactly, and why should women care?

The discrepancy in wages can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost income over a woman’s working life, and a vast discrepancy in the amount of Social Security available upon retirement. Women are more likely to be poor in old age, and the wage discrepancy is one factor. To young women working at their first job, women raising children or women working heads-down to earn money for their families, the situation may be invisible. Employers control the wage data, and it’s not always available to women.

We should pay attention. Working families in the United States lose $200 billion annually because of pay inequality, which is closely linked to poverty. If married women were paid the same as men doing comparable work, their families would see a 6 percent rise in income. If single working women earned as much as men in comparable jobs, their families would have 17 percent more income per year, and their poverty rate would be cut in half.

Wage adjustments for single working mothers could help many families in this economy. They would pay for child care, buy nutritious food, decrease demands on social services, and contribute to family stability. Equal-pay practices would boost performance and encourage retention – both of which are good for businesses. As wage adjustments tend to be modest and phased in over several years, they have not been shown to be harmful to employers.

We can procure this benefit for women and families everywhere in the country by passing legislation that prohibits wage discrimination based on sex, race and national origin.

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) are expected to introduce the Paycheck Fairness Act on Equal Pay Day. It would require employers to provide equal pay for work of equal value. That’s something all Coloradans can get behind.

Laura Dravenstott is a member-at-large of the American Association of University Women.

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