Now It's Time For Women To Get Even

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 23, 2006

Tuesday marks a very special day: It's Equal Pay Day. Why Tuesday, you ask? Because that's how far into the year the average woman must work to earn as much as a man earned by the end of the previous year.

This is yet another slap-the-hand-against-the-forehead-are-you-kidding-me episode in the saga of "Is This Really 2006?"

It is 2006, and as has been true for about a decade, women earn only 77 cents for every dollar men make.

When Evelyn Murphy, an economist and a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, graduated "years and years ago," women were earning 59 cents for every male-earned dollar. But as she saw more women moving into the workforce in the 1960s, she assumed it was "just a matter of time till we caught up."

She heard the reasons why women weren't earning as much as men: They weren't as educated. They dropped out of the workforce as soon as they had children and rarely returned. They didn't need the money because they were married and could depend on their spouse for income. "Then I turned around in the '90s and realized we hadn't caught up," said Murphy, who also is author of "Getting Even: Why Women Don't Get Paid Like Men -- and What to Do About It." "And the reasons were pretty much gone."

So let's just get this straight right now, says Murphy: That 23-cent differential is not because some women take time off to give birth or raise children. The pay-gap figure measures only women and men who work full time, for a full year. It does not include women who took time off during the year or worked part time.

But don't women earn less over time because they might more often take time off to give birth or raise a child? According to Murphy, that's an incredibly lame argument. Most women who can take time off and go back to work full-time earn more in the first place. Any drop in salary they might experience would not pull the average down, she argues.

Okay, so women's' salaries have stalled. (You can get a better idea of what has happened to yours at Murphy's Web site, http://www.wageproject.org/ . Use the wage-gap calculator to find out what you make compared with men in your area who have the same job.)

The big question is what can be done about the gap. The solution lies within a company itself and with women.

"I know government can't solve this problem. We passed the laws that make discrimination illegal," Murphy said. "I've realized CEOs have the power to eliminate this problem."

Murphy argues that every chief executive or head of an organization needs to look at payroll and see if there is a systematic underpayment of women in various job categories.

The state of Minnesota is Murphy's favorite example of how it can be done. In the early 1980s, it was discovered that state employees in female-dominated jobs were paid less than those in male-dominated state jobs. The state adopted a system that gave points for skill, effort, working conditions and responsibility for each job. It was found that male and female jobs rated similarly on these points, but their salaries did not reflect that.

As a result, 8,500 employees received pay equity raises. In 2002, according to Murphy, women who worked for the state earned about 97 cents for every dollar men made.

"Could any employer do this? Of course. The methodology is available so that any CEO can apply this or adapt to his or her job categories," Murphy said. "But they are not going to do it unless women raise the question and say we need to be paid fairly."

And so, Murphy recently launched a grass-roots effort to educate women and to get them talking about their pay, discrimination and negotiation. She is urging women to set up "wage clubs" across the nation to create a sort of localized community where women can comfortably talk about their wages with other women, educate one another and push one another to do something about their situation.

Since December, more than 30 such clubs have popped up around Maine, said Annie Houle, the New England regional representative to the YWCA National Advocacy Board. She met with Murphy in the fall and immediately thought the YWCA would be the perfect place to start a grass-roots effort to get women more involved in closing the wage gap.

"The idea of wage club is to get to the heart of it, to help a woman understand what the law is," she said. The clubs "form support and training to really help women move to that level where they could either confront a boss or work with compatriots to get what they wanted. Or to at least to know what she wants . . . and get the right tools to go for it."

Every time Houle has been at the start of a wage club, it begins the same way. One woman shares a story of finding out that a male counterpart made much more than she did. Another jumps in and says the same thing happened to her. Another explains how that differential could mean new school clothes for her children. It becomes something of a support group for underpaid women everywhere.

Women need all the help they can get: The Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported that in 2005, women made up only 31 percent of workers in the highest earnings category, yet they made up 43.6 percent of all full-time workers.

"Everybody has a story. It's sort of a free-for-all. And it's like, okay, if that's the case, what could we have done differently?" Houle said. "I'm a little older, so some of the things that happened to me, we'd be running to an attorney."

That's not the goal of the wage groups. Instead, women are encouraged to figure out how much they are being underpaid and get support from the group to figure out a way to ask for more, negotiate higher in that next job, or simply understand that they are losing money compared with male counterparts.

On Tuesday, Murphy, who runs the WAGE Project, along with the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of organizations working to eliminate wage discrimination, and the Business and Professional Women/USA, will announce the new grass-roots effort to close the wage gap that includes movements like the wage clubs.

One hopes no one forgets to do something after the party Tuesday.

"I'm old enough to have lived through the sexual revolution," Murphy said. "If we could learn to talk about that, we've got to learn how to talk about money."

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday to discuss your life at work athttp://washingtonpost.com. You can e-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

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