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Outside editorial: Strong laws could help ensure there's fair pay

Posted: Tuesday, May 01, 2007

This editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

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Four decades after the women's liberation movement demanded equal pay for equal work, a new report has found that gender still largely determines what people get paid.

The report, released last month, found that while women have made significant gains in education and income during the last three decades, the gap between the pay of college-educated men and college-educated women not only persists but widens over time. The report from the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation analyzed U.S. Department of Education data on 19,000 men and women.

One year out of college, women in 1994 earned 80 percent of what their male peers did. But by 2003, a decade after graduation, those same women earned just 69 percent of the men's incomes. Controlling for hours worked, occupation, parenthood and other factors that affect earnings, college-educated women still made 12 percent less than their male counterparts.

Parents often tell their children that if they work hard and complete their education, everything else will fall into place. But the researchers found the opposite holds true for women. Women achieve slightly higher grade point averages than men in every college major, including science and math. Ten years after graduation, women are more likely than men to have completed some graduate education. Yet women who attend highly selective colleges earn only as much as men who attend far less selective colleges, the study found.

The research also shows that 10 years after graduation, college-educated men working full-time are more likely than their female counterparts to be involved in hiring and firing decisions, setting pay and supervising others.

Several things need to happen to turn this unacceptable situation around.

The first has to do with the choices women make. Women now earn more college degrees than men, but a greater number of women do not choose to go into higher-paying careers in science and engineering. Technical fields typically command higher salaries than careers that require a liberal arts degree, but technical fields attract far more men than women. Even when men and women hold the same technical degree, women graduates often choose careers that pay less, such as teaching.

Mothers make a lot less than other women. Research indicates that leaving the work force lowers women's earnings potential, as does working part-time. To level the playing field, employers need to better meet the needs of mothers with young children. That means offering flexible scheduling, job sharing and other accommodations to parenthood. Affordable, accessible child care makes a huge difference. Few American employers offer on-site child care.

But even factors such as motherhood and career choice do not fully explain why women earn less than men. Numerous studies, including a 2003 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), have attributed part of the pay gap to sex discrimination. Employers may consciously or subconsciously make discriminatory decisions in hiring, performance evaluation and pay based on personal beliefs about gender roles.

This is where strong laws can make a difference. Two bills before Congress would require equal pay for comparable jobs and eliminate provisions allowing some employers to discipline workers who discuss their wages with a co-worker.

And instead of making do with whatever they get, women need to overcome their own reluctance to negotiate on their own behalf and demand equity in promotions, salaries and even things like getting as much lab or office space as male colleagues. Women also must insist on a fairer division of labor at home. Numerous studies of American family life show that the division of labor within couples, especially those with children, is much as it was decades ago: Women still do the lion's share of the housework, child care, shopping and cooking.

If women are to have a fair shot at equity when they go to work outside the home, men will have to pitch in more at home. And until women raise their expectations and are tougher negotiators both at home and at work, they can be sure the gap will persist.



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