Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary
Columnist

Miss Utah’s Scatterbrained Answer to the Pay Gap

Maybe it’s not fair to ask a woman who has to wear a bikini and ball gown on national TV to answer a serious question about pay equality. But, still, Miss Utah’s answer to that question Sunday during the Miss USA pageant was sad.

Contestant Marissa Powell was asked: “A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?”

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Powell’s answer, with comments from The Washington Post’s Reliable Source: “I think we can relate this back to education and how we are continuing to try to strive to . . . [long pause, punctuated by a sheepish yet radiant smile]. . . figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem, and, I think, especially the men are seen as the leaders of this, so we need to . . . [shorter pause] . . . create education better so we can solve this problem.”

Yes, it’s tough to speak in public and under pressure. But given that she was competing for a position that requires public speaking, she should be able to string together a few sentences that make sense. There’s a pay gap for women. You’re a woman. What do you think about that inequality as a young woman at the beginning of your career?

Nonetheless Powell has gotten some sympathy for her flub.

“The income inequality question is difficult enough on its own,” writes Post opinion columnist Alexandra Petri. “When it was posed to Mitt Romney back during the debates, he wound up coming up with Binders Full of Women. And ever since it hit the public consciousness, that 40 percent figure has been inspiring people to insert their feet into their mouths and wiggle them around.” If haven’t seen Powell’s cringe-worthy moment, Petri’s blog post has the video.

Kerry Hannon, a contributor to Forbes, says that Powell should have said this about the pay gap: “What the gender wage gap says about our society is that the playing field is not equal in the workplace. Yes, there has been positive change in recent years. But for most women, the pay gap has barely budged: from 59 cents to the man’s dollar in 1975 to today’s 77 cents, on average, for a typical woman working full time, according to a study from the Center for American Progress.”

Hannon runs down a number of reasons for the pay gap and then provides tips to help resolve it.

Ban the Box

As I wrote earlier this week, I’m particularly interested in the outcome of lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against BMW and Dollar General, who are accused of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by using information from criminal justice histories to screen employees, which had a disparate impact on black and Hispanic workers and job applicants.

The Society for Human Resource Management found in a survey last year that more than two-thirds of companies conduct criminal background checks on job applicants. About a quarter of those firms said that nonviolent misdemeanors, such as drug convictions, could influence their hiring decisions, and 60 percent reported that violent crimes could disqualify a candidate, reports The Washington Post’s Ylan Q. Mui.

When ex-offenders fill out job applications, many have to check a box indicating they have been convicted of a crime. That checked box has become a brand preventing them from getting jobs or even interviews. I’m an advocate for the growing “Ban the Box” movement, which advocates cutting questions about criminal convictions from application forms.

“The EEOC’s position is that an employer’s policy or practice of excluding individuals from employment on the basis of their conviction records has an adverse impact on African Americans and Hispanics, in light of statistics showing that they are convicted at a rate disproportionately greater than their representation in the population,” EEOC spokeswoman Christine Saah Nazer said. “Qualified individuals with criminal records should have an opportunity to compete for employment when their criminal records are not relevant or predictive.”

I’ve received some criticism for my views on this. Commenters seem to have read right over that I said in my column: “Employers have a right to check the backgrounds of potential workers to ensure they are hiring competent employees who will not jeopardize the safety of their workers or customers.”

One commenter wrote: “So the government and writers are going to tell a business which employee’s criminal charges shouldn’t matter for which jobs. The best way not to be denied a job because of criminal history is not to commit one.”

Here’s the reality. People get out of prison. If they don’t find work they are more likely to commit a crime again. Having a job is one of the leading factors in preventing ex-offenders from ending up back in prison. So we have to figure out a way to create jobs for the formerly incarcerated. Removing the criminal history question from the application doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be asked. It just gives ex-offenders a chance to explain their past and gives them a chance to compete for jobs.

Others understood my point:

Tonyaa Weathersbee, a columnist for the Florida-Times Union, responded on Facebook: “It’s great that you’re counseling soon-to-be released inmates on their finances, Michelle. It’s too bad that the system hasn’t caught up with you when it comes to giving second chances.”

Patrice Jones said, “Tell them a barrier isn’t an impossibility.”

Desiree French @FrenchWomanDC tweeted: “Kudos 4 lending r voice & expertise 2 a worthy cause. #Ex-offenders who did time paid their debt to society & now have rights 2”

Carolyn McClanahan @CarolynMcC tweeted, “Too many good people doomed by 1 early stupid mistake”

Jeannine Hunter @jeanninehunter simply wrote, “they do deserve second chances”

I’ve been following this issue for a few years. In 2010, I worked with two inmates to try to help them make better financial choices. I wrote about their challenges and failures, which you can read by clicking on the links below.

Color of Money Challenge: Soon-to-be-former inmates ready to rebuild their lives

Ex-offenders struggle to find work, overcome employers’ doubts

The Color of Money: Giving ex-offenders the chance to work

So, what do you think?

Color of Money Question of the Week

Do you think the question about criminal convictions should be removed from job application forms? Send your responses to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Put “Ban the Box” in the subject line, and include your full name, city and state.

Live Chats Canceled

I will be away for the next two weeks, so the live online discussions for June 20 and 27 are canceled. I’ll be live on Wednesday, July 3. My guest will be Sharon Graham Niederhaus and John L. Graham, authors of this month’s Color of Money Book Club selection, “All in the Family: A Practical Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living.”

The Cost of Trying on Clothes

Should consumers be worried about “showrooming,” a term used for the shopping practice of researching potential purchases by visiting brick-and-mortar stores but ultimately buying the items online to save money?

A report in The Daily Mail says showrooming is becoming a trend and that some retailers are charging customers up to $25 to try on items in a bid to combat the practice, which the report called toxic for retailers.

In Shanghai, a Vera Wang boutique was charging women almost $500 to try on wedding dresses. If a customer bought a dress, the fee was deducted from the balance of the purchase. The money was not returned to shoppers who failed to make a purchase.

The company said the charge was imposed to deter counterfeiters,” reports Black Enterprise. The cost of a Vera Wang original wedding dress can range from $2,000 to more than $10,000, but knockoff imitations can be found on popular counterfeit online shops for as little as $100.

After some backlash, however, the try-on fee was dropped. In a press release about the policy, Vera Wang Bridal House Ltd. said that the charge is meant to help protect the copyright of the designer, reports Yahoo news.

But, in reality, how big of a retail problem is showrooming? Gallup says its research “suggests that showrooming is more of a myth than a peril.”

John H. Fleming, Gallup’s chief scientist, writes: “Clearly if there is a monster under retailers’ beds, it is not “showrooming.” The real monster under the bed -- the real peril -- is retailers failing to create a compelling and differentiated brand promise that allows them to engage their customers.”

The Price of Being a Whistleblower

Edward Snowden leaked sensitive information to the press about the National Security Agency, which was secretly monitoring citizens’ and foreigners’ phone and Internet activities. The 29-year-old, who describes himself as a “whistleblower” and remains in hiding, lost his six-figure-salary job and may face prosecution.

In one tweet, Snowden said: “I shudder to think of all the compromising situations I used to have to watch people in. No paycheck is worth that. I’d rather go to prison.”

For last week’s Color of Money Question, I asked: “Would you have traded financial security for a higher ideal?”

“This is an interesting question in that, should we say, ‘No, I’d pick money over idealism,’ then we risk appearing materialistic; whereas, if our answer is ‘Yes, I’d blow the whistle on my employer,’ then we’re assured of signing our own pink slip with the admission!” wrote Lorna Gilkey of Alexandria, Va. “While it would make me sick to see the foul things some employers do, I take non-disclosure agreements seriously. And because of that, I would never say anything. Snowden knew the nature of the job before he worked there, so he has no excuse. It is better to leave and maintain trust, integrity and financial stability than it is to blow the whistle and spend your life broke, in hiding and/or in prison.”

John Kenyon of Laurel, Md., wrote: “As for whistle-blowing, I would have to know for certain all the facts before I would betray an employer, and I would likely take my concerns to the inside first. Failing at that (and very possibly getting fired in the process), if I felt some truly serious compromise of the public trust were being violated, then yes, absolutely, I would blow the whistle. And then I would stand in the fire for my convictions, not run away to some other country while I thought over what I had just done.”

Tia Lewis contributed to this report.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to www.postbusiness.com. Follow Michelle Singletary on Twitter @SingletaryM.

 
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