Don't Get Mad, Get Even

Getting Even: Why Women Don't Get Paid Like Men -- And What To Do About It by Evelyn Murphy with E.J. Graff (Touchstone, 352 pages, $24.95)

Just when you thought the news couldn't get any worse, here comes a report from the trenches of the American workplace, where apparently women are still being short-changed in the same old egregious ways. I must admit that I had thought that blatant, in-your-face sex discrimination was by and large a thing of the past, except in a few dark corners of male chauvinism like Wall Street, the extractive industries, the skilled trades, Hooters, and your neighborhood garage. You know, where things are filthy with lucre or grease or grime. But no, no such luck. A new and damning report by Evelyn Murphy, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, makes it clear that fair wages are still an elusive dream, even for women working full time, shoulder to shoulder with the boys. As Murphy documents, the reality in every imaginable occupation can be a nightmare.

Getting Even, co-authored by E.J. Graff, is a litany of abuses, many culled from the records of discrimination lawsuits that were settled in favor of the plaintiffs. We meet the ambitious young police officer who was completely sidelined after her second pregnancy. The woman whose investment banker boss stuffed money in her bra and asked for oral sex. The endocrinologist who found she was earning 24 percent less than her male colleague with less seniority. The chemical worker who was severely harassed by co-workers led by a ringleader who believed the Bible intended women to be subject to male authority. He was promoted and she had to quit. And on and on, in numbing, depressing, convincing detail.

One could be skeptical about the significance of this kind of anecdotal data, but no one can deny the arresting fact that for several years in the 1990s, the gender wage gap between full-time working men and women stopped its slow process of narrowing and actually widened. By 2003, women were still earning only 77 cents to the men's dollar. Even among young male and female college graduates, starting salaries were further apart in 2003 than they had been in 1991. (The women earned 16 percent less in their first job than the men, versus 9 percent less in 1991.) Young women with only a high school degree slipped even further behind. By 2003, those working full-time in the “pink-collar ghetto” earned 22 percent less than blue-collar young men, compared with 18 percent less in 1991.

The only group of women who narrowed the gender wage gap during the 1990s was those with graduate degrees. Women between the ages of 35 and 44 with degrees in law, business, and medicine who were working full time narrowed the gap with comparable men from 29 percent to 14 percent between 1991 and 2003. Since these are the women who tend to attract the most media attention, their relative success may have obscured the fact that many more millions of women are dropping further behind.

What on earth is going on? Women have now essentially drawn even with men in education and experience. Murphy cites economist Heidi Hartmann's observation that when times are good, men tend to do better than women. And indeed, men's wages in the booming '90s did rise faster than those of comparable women. By any definition, that ain't fair. Worse, the country accepts this systematic unfairness as a given. Murphy reports that when she asked people what women ought to be earning compared with men, most said they had no idea, or guessed that women should earn about 80 cents to a man's $1. No one thought the answer should be equal pay for equal work.

This passivity may help explain why women continue to lag: They are not demanding their fair share. And that is incredibly costly both to them and to those who share their lives, including most men and almost all children. Lifetime earnings losses due to the gender wage gap alone can amount to more than $1 million for a college graduate and $700,000 for a high school graduate. That translates into a more impoverished or insecure old age and more bankruptcies among women. It means more modest housing, fewer vacations, and above all, greater anxiety about paying the bills, including those for children's higher education. Murphy is eager to convey these personal costs in this book. She constantly reminds readers what they could buy with that money they never earn, asking at one point, “Why would any hard-working, able woman willingly forego making as much money as she possibly could?”

Well, actually, there's a reason. Millions of able hard-working women do forego making as much money as they possibly can in order to have more time for life. Murphy doesn't mention that full-time working women don't work as many hours as full-time working men, which surely explains some of the gender wage gap. And her analysis leaves out fully half of all working age women with children, because they don't work full time; they work part time or not at all for money. They pay an even heavier economic price, but do so because they are more concerned about time poverty than relative wage poverty.

This does not mean that they willingly choose to be economically marginalized. Many if not most did not really “opt out” as often described; they were pushed out, edged out, sidelined, or derailed. Indeed, if the myriad forms of discrimination and harassment Murphy documents were reduced or eliminated, I have no doubt that countless women who are currently out of the labor force or working part time would return, to the enormous benefit of their pocketbooks.

But by essentially ignoring the other great problem women face in the workplace -- time pressure -- Murphy limits the appeal of her message. She says nothing of the need for more humane working hours, for paid sick days and parental leaves. Unmentioned is the need to eliminate mandatory overtime and to establish parity of pay and benefits for part-time workers, most of whom are women. She is dead right in insisting that nothing is going to change until women themselves demand it, but I suspect that as a childless woman who has always been a flat-out professional, she misjudges the preference that many women have for a less work-centered existence. John de Graaf, the founder of the Take Back Your Time movement, likes to remind people that when thousands of women walked off their jobs in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, during the massive strike of 1912, they carried signs demanding “bread and roses” -- higher wages and shorter hours. These were the two great goals of the original labor movement: money and time to smell the roses.

Still, Getting Even is an extremely useful reminder that fair wages for women is a battle that is still not won. After decades of denial that feminism has any relevance today, women have to face the fact that unless they stand up, speak out, and maybe even pick a fight, things are not going to get better and could easily get worse. Not content with just writing a book, Murphy has also launched The WAGE (Women Are Getting Even) Project Inc., dedicated to closing the gender wage gap in 10 years. I clicked on the Web site (www.wageproject.org ) and found a place where you can type in your salary and then discover what the average male in the same position, same industry, and same region was earning, based on year 2000 data. I put in a $25,000 income for a hypothetical secretary in financial services in Montgomery County, Maryland. (I didn't dare to put in freelance writer). Back came the information that 95 percent of the people in that job were female, and that this hypothetical woman's salary was 56 percent of that of a male in the same job.

Ann Crittenden is the author of The Price of Motherhood and If You've Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything.

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