Getting Our Fair Share
Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men–and What To Do About It
By Evelyn Murphy with E. J. Graff
New York: Touchstone Hardcover/Simon and Schuster, 2005, 342 pp., $24.00.
Reviewed by Alice Kessler-Harris
Before 1964–that’s more than forty years ago–employers could legally discriminate against women. If you applied for a promotion or a new position and someone told you they just didn’t want a woman in that job, there wasn’t much you could do about it. Then, in the summer of 1964, Congress passed a Civil Rights act that included a provision (Title VII) that prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sex, as well as race, religion, and color. That should have changed everything. But, as Evelyn Murphy argues in Getting Even, Title VII did only part of the job.
Getting Even is a disturbing account of the continuing wage gap between men and women in the job market. In 1965, full-time, full-year female workers earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by a full time male worker. I was one of those women who, at the end of the decade, proudly sported a “59” button that symbolized the discrepancy and sought to close the gap. By 1993, we had made a good deal of progress: women’s wages had risen to 77 cents to every man’s dollar. And then growth stopped. For several years the wage drifted downward–to 76 cents, and then 75 ½. Slowly it recouped a bit, but for the most part it has settled into the 77-cent orbit, and there it has stuck. How, Evelyn Murphy asks, can we close that final 23 cent gap?
To convince us that women and sympathetic men need to take action to close the gap, Murphy adopts three strategies: she focuses, first, on the costs of the wage gap for individual women; then she explains why the gap persists; and finally she offers solutions that she claims will end the differential within ten years.
Each of these sections makes a forceful argument, but the most convincing is surely the first. Women who earn less are able to buy less: less housing and shelter; less education for themselves and their children; less economic security in the event of illness or for their old age. In an economy where marriages are often ephemeral, and where women’s wage-earning has become the norm and not the exception, these differentials are simply unfair. And because the differentials are greater for black and Hispanic women, they exact greater costs from these groups. The price is not measured only in dollars. Women who earn less, Murphy tells us, soon begin to devalue themselves. Diminished self-esteem and restricted ambition take their toll. Some women are forced to take second jobs, sacrificing family life, leisure and self-development. All of society pays a price when their children receive insufficient attention.
Why then, has the gap persisted? Murphy believes that deeply ingrained, and sometimes invisible, forms of discrimination account for continuing problems in the workforce. Men (and sometimes women too) rely on “unexamined assumptions” or “gut instincts” when it comes to hiring. They believe that males are meant to be breadwinners; that they are more competitive and more competent than women; that they are more willing to “get dirty.” Managers responsible for hiring also believed that women, by contrast, don’t try hard enough; that they lack “the balls” to do some jobs; that “there are jobs women aren’t going to do as good as guys.” These belief systems result in the placement of women and men in different jobs, that just happen to pay different sorts of wages. The effects are cumulative. As others have shown, a tiny wage discrepancy at hiring can result in a significant wage inequity by the fifth year in a job.
Sexual harassment in its many forms constitutes a second sort of discrimination.
Women brave enough, or needy enough, to go after traditional men’s jobs discover that they often cannot get appropriate training, lack mentors, and face persistent, and sometimes life-threatening, sexual hostility from their coworkers. To keep their jobs, many women simply learn to keep their mouths shut and make the best of a bad deal. Fearful of negative reactions, some refuse promotions to better paying jobs.
Faced with such conditions, women have tended to drift into “women’s work.” Two thirds of all women still work in sex-segregated jobs: women constitute only four percent of workers in the building and construction trades; and though engineers, police departments, and firefighters now boast more women than ever, the actual numbers are still tiny. Where women have expanded their numbers dramatically—in middle management, academia, and the financial sector—the wage gap has dramatically narrowed. Female entry-level workers in these special sectors earned 91 cents for every male dollar in 1994; although the number fell to 84 cents by 2004. The slippage seems to have occurred because women have tended to choose “good work” as opposed to the megabucks made by men with comparable education and skills. As one woman put it, women have an attitude: “You’re doing good work, so you should be satisfied.”
Murphy offers a series of recommendations–she calls them solutions–for narrowing the wage gap. Eagerly as I headed for this section, I found myself disappointed. Surprisingly, given Murphy’s concern about the constraints that what she calls “ingrained biases” place on how women as a group function in the workplace, she mainly advocates strategies to increase the wages of individuals. In the past decade, she points out, hundreds of companies have settled with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), while others have been successfully sued for sex discrimination on the grounds of pay inequity, sexual harassment, or pregnancy discrimination. Yet, Murphy says, because “these well intentioned efforts were not designed explicitly to close the wage gap....they did not.” To “get even” she thinks, will require three steps: advocacy by individuals and groups within the workplace; education of CEOs, who can change conditions from the top down; and external social pressure on companies. To implement these, Murphy tells us to “document our experiences of discrimination”; to persuade CEOs “to commit themselves to closing the gap”; and to build grassroots campaigns that will keep the pressure on employers and policy-makers to “do the right thing.”
But mainly, Murphy wants to stir up individual women to take their wages seriously: to motivate them to confront their bosses, demand pay raises, and re-evaluate their worth. Murphy is chief executive officer of a nonprofit organization called The WAGE Project, Inc. WAGE stands for Women Are Getting Even, and among the things that she would like you to do is to join her organization, which promises to put the collective power of women into projects to correct the wage gap. Out of curiosity I accessed the website (www.wageproject.org), a lively and informative collection of information, links to data bases, suggestions for things you can do, and invitations to join WAGE. Murphy believes that WAGE will motivate women to replace the methods that ceased to be effective after 1994.
But what if we adopted a longer timeframe? Between 1960 and 1993, organized women, acting together, narrowed the wage gap from 41 cents to 23 cents by confronting “ingrained biases.” In those years, we turned to consciousness raising and education to alter traditional perceptions of women’s and men’s roles. We successfully relied on political and legal strategies such as Title IX of the 1972 Education Act, which prohibited discrimination against women by any educational program that received federal funds and paved the way for an infusion of money into women’s sports. We mounted campaigns for “comparable worth” to replace “equal pay,” arguing that women should be paid on the basis of whether their jobs required equivalent responsibility, skill, and experience rather than whether they were exactly the same as man’s jobs. We increased efforts to create family-friendly workplaces and agitated for insurance coverage for pregnant women and new mothers. These strategies were responsible for much of the success of the seventies. Getting Even lacks any mention of some of the most significant developments within the EEOC; of the court cases that altered the ways that sex was treated within the law; even of the famous Eveleth case (the basis for the movie North Country), which set the precedent that enabled women to sue as a class against a hostile work environment. Although Getting Even exposes the way some unions have systematically excluded women from training programs, thus lowering their wages, we learn nothing of the role other unions have played in narrowing the pay gap; nor do unions appear as part of the strategy for confronting employers. While Murphy attributes continuing discrimination to “stereotyping,” the book lacks recommendations for how to end stereotyping. Yet as far back as the 1970s, groups like The Feminist Press and Ms. magazine made this their first priority.
If Murphy is right about the problem (and I think she is), we all need to pay attention to possible solutions. WAGE may be one such solution. I admire and applaud Murphy for recognizing the centrality of wages as both a practical necessity and a symbol of women’s worth. But I am troubled by the value system embedded in Getting Even, which seems to reject much of what the second wave of feminism was all about. Certainly I’m all for women getting what we deserve in an economy that pushes us to our limits. But what about the feminist commitment to challenge the overwhelming power of the market; to reject exclusionary competitiveness; to change families and workplaces in ways that accommodate nurturing roles; to foster equality across race and class lines? If we really want to get even, we might want to temper our legitimate desire to get as much as we can out of our jobs with an effort to understand and come to terms with the meaning of the marketplace.
Alice Kessler-Harris teaches in the department of history and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia University. She is the author, most recently, of In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Man and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America.