Wal-Mart Suit May Force Wider Look at Pay Gap Between Sexes
By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page E01
Labor attorneys and workplace experts predicted yesterday that employers will need to consider more decisive movement to narrow pay gaps between male and female employees as a result of a judge's decision to allow a sex-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to proceed to trial as a class action.
The finding that there was enough information to show that women at Wal-Mart were paid less than male counterparts in equal positions has put pay inequity back in the forefront of workplace issues. Female employees today earn an average of 77 percent of what their male co-workers do, up from 59 percent 40 years ago, according to the U.S. Census.
Although many companies do track pay inequities, the case could force employers to put equal-pay rules on a faster track than they might have previously. If a pattern of pay disparities appears to exist, companies are now reminded by the Wal-Mart case that they could become embroiled in a messy, long battle or pricey settlement.
"I think this is going to be the fuse that ignites the compensation analysis that we've never seen before," said John C. Fox, chairman of the employment and labor law group with the law firm Fenwick & West in Mountain View, Calif.
Tuesday's ruling could include as many as 1.6 million current and former female Wal-Mart employees, making it the largest private employer civil rights case in U.S. history.
Wal-Mart lawyers had argued to the judge that statistical differences in pay and positions were due to differing job aspirations and interests between men and women that exist in the general labor force, and that can't be blamed on the company.
That has been one argument used for years to explain the wage gap.
But according to a new study by Catalyst, a women's research organization, 55 percent of women and 57 percent of men want to occupy the most senior role within an organization. In addition, women who have children living with them are just as likely to want to occupy a higher position as those who don't have children living with them, the study found.
Even though more women are taking on better-paying occupations, the pay is still not equal, Department of Labor statistics show.
For instance, 15 years ago more than half of all full-time accountants and auditors were men. Today, there are 561,000 male accountants and 784,000 women. Yet male accountants earn $1,041 on average per week, while female accountants make an average of $756 per week.
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