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Still a long way to go for equal pay

POSTED March 14, 2014 10:42 p.m.

With the month of March marking National Women’s History Month, it is important that we not only observe the significant strides made by women throughout the decades, but also acknowledge the barriers continually facing women today. One of these barriers remains in the modern workplace, where, despite women accounting for nearly half of the workforce, their earnings continue to be considerably less than their male colleagues.

On average, working women in full-time positions receive only 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, creating a gender wage gap of 23 percent. While women are now in occupations and administrative positions that were primarily exclusive to males in previous decades, workplace discrimination continues to be a reality that millions of women struggle with daily, even in 2014.

According to a report released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, should pay change continue at the same slow pace it has done for the past 50 years, it would take until 2058 for women to finally reach pay parity. Additionally, the same report found that this gender wage gap exists in virtually every occupation, making it increasingly difficult for young women entering the job market to find jobs providing equal pay.

Many careers in construction, science and engineering are still heavily male dominant, while women predominately make up several service-based sectors such as nursing, teaching and childcare. While some attribute these “gendered occupations” as being the reason for the considerable difference in earnings, as the occupations predominately done by women are comparatively lower paying jobs, there continues to be little progress in the gender integration of such fields that would reduce this occupational segregation.

Although several studies have found that this segregation is typically lower in occupations requiring four years or more of higher education, where men and women are often represented equally, many low-level and medium-level workers often find themselves in fields where one gender primarily makes up the majority of workers. Throughout history, many of these occupations have been based on preconceived notions of what “men’s work” or “women’s work” looks like, creating barriers that are reinforcing outdated gender roles while also restricting both men and women from entering occupations that would suit them best.

Suppose there is a male worker perfectly suited for a career in child care services, but cannot find a center that will hire him based on the ill-informed belief that women are “naturally” better qualified for such positions. As the same prejudiced outcome hinders many women today from entering fields that have been historically held as “naturally” men’s work, (such as in engineering, with men making up 88 percent of the field) economic growth for women across the nation has been subsequently restricted, in addition to keeping an abundance of skilled workers of both genders from thriving in positions that they might be more qualified for. Instead of holding careers in education, childcare and the humanities as “feminine,” and careers in science and engineering as “masculine,” we should be promoting diversity in these occupations, not discouraging men and women from entering new fields.

Though 50 years have passed since President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963 in an effort to abolish wage discrimination based on gender, many employers still exhibit this prejudice in the modern workplace particularly against hiring or promoting mothers. Bringing national awareness to this, Professor Joan C. Williams of the University of California Hastings College Of Law has cited multiple studies linking motherhood directly to a decrease in economic growth and opportunity throughout a woman’s career. Many times, Williams says, employers are hesitant to hire or promote women with children based off the assumption that she will not be fully committed to her job.

Additional research has also found that many employers are reluctant to pay for the training of a female employee who they fear might leave her position following pregnancy. Although it is illegal for employers to fire a woman due to pregnancy, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has reported a steady increase in the amount of filed charges for pregnancy and maternity discrimination since the 1990s. This kind of discriminatory behavior is boxing women in across the nation, as it creates a fear of being penalized for having or wanting children – something that should be celebrated, not detrimental to our careers.

Despite the anti-discriminatory laws that have been in place for over 50 years, the existing wage gap between men and women workers has merited continued legislative efforts, including the Paycheck Fairness Act being pushed by President Barack Obama. The bill, which includes stricter wage transparency measures, was designed to expand the efforts of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, while also penalizing employers who retaliate against workers sharing wage and salary information. The bill was blocked by House GOP leadership in 2013, and is reported as having only a 10 percent chance of leaving the congressional committee where it currently remains.

Throughout Women’s History Month, it is critical for women to examine the substantial barriers that we have overcome, while also recognizing that which must continue to change. As the old saying goes, “you cannot know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”

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