The Tax on Being Female: 23 Cents per Hour and Counting
Media critic Jennifer L. Pozner talks with Evelyn Murphy and her collaborator E.J. Graff about their new book Getting Even, the wage gap, the media, and what individuals, employers, and legislators can do to achieve equity at long last.
JENNIFER L. POZNER: Your primary claim in Getting Even is that “Over her working lifetime, a woman will lose between $700,000 and $2 million,” and that women still earn approximately 77 cents for every dollar men earn for comparable work. How did you arrive at these figures?
EVELYN MURPHY: This calculation is based on methodology developed by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, DC, applied to 2000 census data for all working women based on their educational achievement and years of work.
POZNER: How does race impact the wage gap—does the 77 cents refer to all women, or do women of color face deeper disparity? Is the comparative $1 benchmark earned by all men or just white men?
MURPHY: Seventy-seven cents refers to all full-time, year-round working women compared with all full-time, year round working men. African American women earn less (70 cents) and Hispanic women even less (58 cents) when compared to all working men.
POZNER: The public debate in the last decade has been heavily swayed by media attention to a wave of conservative-authored articles and books such as Women's Figures: An Illustrated Guide to the Economic Progress of Women in America by Christine Stolba (former senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum—IWF) and Diana Furchtgott-Roth (former resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute), which claim that feminists have manipulated financial data and that the wage gap doesn’t really exist. As the IWF puts it, “It’s Not About Discrimination, It’s About Choice.” Is it methodology or ideology that accounts for the differences between feminist and conservative calculations of the wage gap?
MURPHY: People often ask me, “Isn’t the wage gap really about women ‘choosing’ to drop out or work part time to raise children?” The answer is no. If a woman drops out or works part time she is not counted in the 77-cent gap, a measurement which compares year-round, fulltime working men and women.
Some “debunkers” then say, “But women drop out and then reenter the workforce years later. Don’t these women earn less than they would have if they stayed at work?” My answer is, “Yes, of course. But who gets to drop out nowadays?” The average working woman makes $31,000 a year, while the kinds of women the New York Times usually points to in its articles on the “mommy track” are very highly educated, very high earners—physicians, lawyers, MBAs—and they have high-earning husbands. When they drop back in, of course they make less than they would have if they had not dropped out—but there are so few of them that they don’t affect the overall average woman’s wage.
The wage gap has been stuck for a decade and persists even in the absence of sharp differences between American women’s and men’s education, qualifications, work experience, commitment to work, or need for paychecks. The “debunkers” try to deflect attention by looking at slivers of data that compare women and men with similar qualifications at the start of their careers. But in Getting Even we show that unfair, unequal treatment sets back working women throughout their careers: small differences in starting salary; slower promotions—because women have to prove themselves while men are often promoted when someone thinks they show “promise”; sexual harassment—which may force a woman to take a different job or shift, so she receives no promotion; and so forth.
POZNER: TV news, talk radio, and leading newspapers and magazines tell us that the pay equity problem was resolved after the feminist movement prioritized it in the ‘70s; sexual harassment was curtailed after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings; and the glass ceiling was shattered by the turn of the century, when Hewlett Packard chose a female CEO. Can you discuss the accuracy of reports about the “opt out generation” and other coverage of women and work?
E.J. GRAFF: Every year or two, the elite media declare yet again that feminism is dead, and that most women yearn to stay at home and tend babies. The New York Times regularly runs such stories. The message is quite explicit: women don’t make as much as men because they don’t want to—so stop whining already! By reinforcing such untested assumptions, the Times—so disproportionately influential in our nation’s sense of itself—reinscribes those stereotypes more deeply into American brains, making them seem “natural.”
But this focus on women’s “choices” masks a far more profound story. Economist Heather Boushey studied the labor force data and found no opt-out trend. The real trend isn’t choice; it’s the lack of it. Most women have to work, because they and their families need the paycheck. Many working mothers have been “mommy-tracked” against their will. If they become pregnant, take a few months’ maternity leave (their legal right), or request flexible hours, they can be demoted or outright fired. When they have kids, they’re treated unfairly on the job, underpaid, underpromoted, and sidelined. There’s a “daddy bonus” and a “mommy penalty”: for each child, men make more, and women make less—even when they’re both still working full time.
Women have been filing more pregnancy discrimination complaints over the past decade, according to private employment lawyers and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regional attorneys. When women win these lawsuits, it’s often because a manager explicitly states that a pregnant woman can’t do the job, or that the company requires pregnant women to leave after a certain month, or that moms should be home with their kids. The idea that moms shouldn’t work is so commonplace that managers don’t realize that broadcasting their bias is illegal. Of course, only a very small percentage of women bring formal charges, and far fewer of those actually sue their employers. Lawsuits are therefore just a hint of the mistreatment that lies below the surface.
POZNER: What role does media coverage play in reinforcing stereotypes and perpetuating workplace sex discrimination?
MURPHY: The media plays a huge role. Stories that feature only highly educated, high earning women give the public the impression that these women represent all working women.
GRAFF: The media peddle deeply ingrained stereotypes about everyone, including women. How could anyone who watches TV fail to take in the concepts that black people are dangerous, gay men are flighty, Muslims are terrorists, or mothers are unreliable at work? These sorts of unexamined stereotypes are like computer viruses: once they’re clicked on, they start to dismantle women’s careers, which then require a painful amount of time and effort to rebuild.
Individual reporters, editors, or producers may not be doing it intentionally, but by peddling myths about women who “choose” to make less money, they reinforce stereotypes. That’s true not just about the opt-out myth but also about the entire range of discrimination types that hold women back on the job. When did you last see an investigation into why, say, the New York City Fire Department is almost 99 percent male, or why women still make up fewer than 2.5 percent of all workers in the skilled trades?
POZNER: I’m both intrigued and a little put off by the financial calculations in your chapter, “Wage Discrimination by Sexual Harassment.” On the one hand, you provide an invaluable service by attaching monetary figures to what many believe is simply an emotional issue. On the other, the impact of verbal abuse and physical assault at work would seem far greater on a woman’s safety and her psyche than on her wallet. Some of your examples—waitresses suffering attempted rape in their restaurants; firefighters and police officers being denied proper equipment, training, and life-saving backup—are so gruesome that the financial toll seems almost beside the point. Why did you research nonfinancial indicators of workplace discrimination as a measure of economic disparity?
GRAFF: Sexual harassment is illegal not because it’s psychologically unpleasant but because it prevents women from earning their paychecks, based on the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII. The method of the book is to figure out the financial cost of things we usually think of as psychological harm—so the harm can be measured.
MURPHY: Most often we regard sexual harassment as disgusting, unconscionable behavior, and it is. But the financial toll of sexual harassment has not been addressed. The stories and cases listed in our charts show that women lose their jobs because they were harassed and complained about it; that women lose promotions when they don’t provide sexual favors; and that women pay serious medical costs for the emotional toll of sexual harassment.
POZNER: You offer many disturbing examples of blatant bias in your book: employment agency job postings listed as “males only”; a hiring manager at Rent-A-Center stating “I regularly throw away women’s applications”; Home Depot managers explaining the company’s preference for male employees because “You women, you get knocked up and then you’re worthless.”; employers giving the same jobs different names to dock women’s pay, as when men who clean Massachusetts public schools were labeled “custodians” and paid $13.08 per hour while women were called “house cleaners” and paid $11.85 per hour. One of the more striking revelations in Getting Even is how often corporations settle bias lawsuits out of court for millions of dollars, writing off overtly illegal discrimination as a cost of doing business. Leaving aside the issue of fairness, wouldn’t it be less risky and make better business sense to comply with the law? Wouldn’t providing a positive working environment help US companies retain female talent and remain competitive?
GRAFF: You’d think so. But bias goes deep. Employers know that they will rarely if ever get caught. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) gets 80,000 complaints a year but can prosecute only about 400 cases. Few women really want to go to court, given the high toll it exacts. No law is self-enforcing. Lacking an active movement to bring public attention to a problem, insist on enforcement, and shame the wrongdoers, the law can be flouted.
MURPHY: If Congress dramatically expanded the budget of the underfunded, understaffed EEOC, the agency would be able to do more enforcement. But the amount of additional funding that would be needed is large. Realistically, given the competing demands on the federal budget and today’s congressional leadership, it is highly unlikely that the EEOC will see an increase.
POZNER: You offer useful suggestions for employers, including tying managers’ and CEOs’ bonuses to their efforts to eliminate the wage gap, adjusting pay scales, and enforcing zero-tolerance policies for overt discrimination. What additional steps can employers take to eliminate what you call the “tax on being female” in the American workplace?
MURPHY: The most effective step an employer can take is to analyze the wages of all employees to determine if there is systemic underpayment of women at various levels and in various jobs. If a pattern of underpaying women appears, then the employer should take steps to eliminate it—and not by taking money out of men’s paychecks. Solving the gender wage gap is no more complicated that raising women’s salaries in a deliberate, concerted fashion. If every employer in America did this, the wage gap would go away.
POZNER: You tell women, “[You] don’t have to get mad and act so aggressively that you become someone you don’t like”; women must simply “document, research, collaborate, ask for fair pay, and celebrate.” While that sounds hearteningly optimistic, it also raises a question: if it were really that simple, wouldn’t long-standing fair pay efforts have born fruit by now? Haven’t we learned from union organizing that making workplace demands can be tougher than simply asking for what we want?
MURPHY: This is not a soft-headed proposal. Most women are afraid to take action at work for fear that they will lose their much needed job. Past efforts relied on legislation and government. They gave us the legal underpinning that exists today. But they were not sufficient, as evidenced by the 23-cent gap today. Don’t underestimate what it takes for women to research, collaborate, and achieve fair pay. This takes informed, strategic action.
POZNER: Of course women should negotiate for as high a salary as they can get, just as men typically do. But bosses don’t tend to part with money easily, regardless of the gender of the person asking for the raise—and if a workplace pays women less, that’s an additional challenge. How can women make a conversation with a recalcitrant boss, supervisor, or CEO fruitful? How can our readers eliminate the gender gap in their own work lives, as well as across the board?
MURPHY: Women have to talk about what is happening to them at work and whether they are being paid fairly. Women have been socialized not to talk about money. So, we have to learn to talk. Women should do this talking outside of their workplaces, among friends, in settings that provide confidentiality and support. They need to personalize their losses in order to see what inaction costs them and understand the vulnerabilities they risk passing on to all the women in their lives if they do not take action to eliminate the gender wage gap.
POZNER: You’ve formed the WAGE (Women Are Getting Even) Project in conjunction with the release of this book. In Getting Even, you claim that with proper motivation, America can eliminate the wage gap within a decade. The idea that spontaneous mobilization for pay equity is poised to burst onto the economic landscape strikes me as a bit naïve. Major political change requires significant time, money, resources, coordination, multiple strategies, grassroots community organizing, legislative efforts, and alliance-building to bridge these elements. To what degree is the WAGE Project planning on building alliances within the feminist, economic justice, labor, civil rights, and other movements? How can our readers and other individuals, employers, legislators, policy-makers, and media producers plug in to this work?
MURPHY: Any woman can use our website, www.wageproject.org, to calculate her wage gap, see stories of other women who face similar problems at work, access the most extensive file in the country of gender discrimination cases in which employers have had to pay women employees, and get guidance about forming WAGE Clubs to start talking about the wage gap and taking informed, strategic action. The WAGE Project is a resource that can be used by social scientists to do much needed research on gender wage discrimination. With the help of the Law, Culture, and Diversity Program of Northeastern Law School, the website provides women with information on the laws about gender discrimination in the state in which they live and work.
The WAGE Project is also building grassroots activities and alliances with women’s groups throughout the country. In December 2005, the Portland, Maine, YWCA became the first in the country to commit to initiating a WAGE Club. Another half dozen YWCAs in New England are doing the same. YWCAs in Chicago and Los Angeles have also indicated their interest in forming clubs, as have women physicians, lawyers in the Boston Women’s Bar Association, and labor union women in St. Louis. WAGE welcomes alliances with activist groups for social and economic justice throughout the country and will respond to all inquiries to build alliances.
Jennifer L. Pozner, executive director of Women In Media & News, lectures around the country about media representations of women. Her ongoing analysis, along with that of fifty other women writers, is available in WIMN’s Voices, a women’s media monitoring group blog hosted at www.WIMNonline.org.