Women’s Wages: A Medieval Problem in the 21st Century?

The Working Stiff Journal
Vol. 2 #3, April 1999
by Jackie Dana

In every country in the world, men earn more than women. This situation has existed since before the rise of factories and cubicles. According to Paris tax records from 1313, women’s taxable wealth was 65.6% of men’s, and women held the lowest-paying jobs within the city.

Women have come a long way since then—or have we? Thirty years ago women earned just over half the pay of their male counterparts. This was supposed to be resolved with the passage of the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963. Under this act, employers must pay women the same as men for work that is “substantially equal.” Additionally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers employers with 15 or more workers, prohibits pay differences based on gender and bars discrimination against women in hiring, promotion, training, discipline and other job aspects.

Despite the existence of such laws, women are entering the 21st century still being paid substantially less than men. In 1997, women were paid 74.1 cents for every dollar men received. When broken down by ethnicity, African American women earn only 67 cents for every dollar that men earn, and Latinas only 58 cents. According to AFL-CIO statistics, the average 25-year-old working woman will lose $523,000 to unequal pay during her working life.

To illustrate the problem, it’s worth examining salaries for a variety of positions and note how much more men receive, on average, in these jobs. These figures are provided by the AFL-CIO. For computer programmer positions, the median pay is $869 per week for men; for women it is only $742, a difference of $127. Female restaurant staff average $60 less per week than males. Female special education teachers are paid $86 less. Clerical workers feel the pinch as well—women make $378 per week; men make $72 more. Even male lawyers, whose median salary is $1,267, make over $300 more than their female colleagues.

Each year women mark this difference in men’s and women’s salaries on “Equal Pay Day.” That is the day when women as a whole have finally earned as much as their male counterparts did by December 31st of the previous year. The date is calculated each year from U.S. Census Bureau data on men’s and women’s earnings.

Equal Pay Day 1999 will be observed on April 8, five days later than in 1998; apparently we made in comparison with men even less money this past year!

On the AFL-CIO website women can calculate how much income they will lose over their lifetime, based on current salary, education level and age. Needless to say, it was distressing to learn that as a union member I can expect to lose $520,107. At least it’s better than the calculation of $696,262 if I weren’t a member of a union! (Mourn your own lost income athttp://www.aflcio.org/women/equalpay.htm.)

One reason for the difference in wages comes from a long-cherished image of women as the family homemaker and care giver for children. Traditionally, the breadwinner role has belonged to the father, while the mother, if she worked, did so either to supplement the man’s salary or to ease the boredom of housework (which, of course, is unpaid work). Although the Equal Pay Act was supposed to remove the concept of relative “need” from salary determinations, female wages still apparently come with the assumption that women are second wage earners. Male wages, on the other hand, continue to be seen as a means to promote personal achievement.

According to the 1997 Report on the National Survey from the Working Women’s Department of the AFL-CIO, 64% of working women provide about half or more of their household income. At the same time, 41% of working women head their own households, and 28% of these women have dependent children. Although our society expects women to arrange for child care (if they don’t provide it themselves), only 11% of working women with children younger than 12 have jobs that provide child care.

In general, women’s work is devalued. The more women in a given occupation, the less both men and women in that occupation will earn. For example, in the United States, where most dentists are male, the salaries are very high, while in Europe, where most dentists are female, dentists’ incomes are more modest and closer to the average (Reskin and Padavic, Women and Men at Work , 1994). Furthermore, disparities in income by job classification are common, owing to severe gender segregation within the workplace. Reskin and Padavic report that fewer than 10% of workers in the United States have a coworker of the other sex that “does the same job, for the same employer, in the same location, and on the same shift.”

At the University of Texas, there is great disparity in income, responsibilities and job titles based on gender. According to official University figures published by the Office of Institutional Studies, as of fall 1998 there were 1,548 tenured and tenure track faculty at UT. These are the positions with both job security and the highest salaries. Of these faculty positions, only 345—fewer than a quarter—are held by women. Meanwhile, 659 people fill the lower-paying non-tenure track positions; of these, 332, more than half, are women.

The situation is the same for UT’s nonteaching staff. Only 221 of the 552 people with “Executive/Administrative and Management” titles are women. Technical positions are filled more than twice as often with men. Yet the lower-paid administrative support and clerical titles are overwhelmingly female. Of 5,081 such jobs, an amazing 3,114 are women.

As we approach the next millennium, the U.S. society must face this challenge. It is time that we finally reverse the discrimination and stereotypes of at least the last thousand years, and strive to make the concept of ” pay for equal work a reality for all women.

The Working Stiff Journal was a free community newspaper produced in Austin, Texas and distributed across town. All of the articles were available online on the UT Watch site for many years, but they are no longer available, so I am republishing my own work here (in 2014). You can still read back issues thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

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