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Female teen lifeguard protesting unequal pay finds support

The gender pay gap has a long history — and it’s far from over, but many readers offered sympathies and shared their own experiences.

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After a teen lifeguard described her frustration at being paid less than her male teen colleagues, Washington Post readers applauded her courage and persistence and shared their experiences with pay inequality.

Patricia Digby Ellis of Williamsburg, Va., had a similar experience as a 16-year-old lifeguard in 1956. “I complained to my mother, and she told me to go to the head of the camp, and if I didn’t succeed, she would intervene.” Although she was scared to speak up, Ellis said, her boss heard her out — and agreed. “I won the same salary [as the boys] and the back pay. Sadly, that was not the only time I was discriminated against because of sex or age.”

As a single mother and the lowest-paid research assistant among less-experienced peers on a government contracting team in the 1980s, Marcia McDevitt of Reston, Va., said she asked for a raise but was told by her boss, “You get child support, you don’t need money.” Readers described seeing male colleagues getting raises and promotions because “they had families to support” — through the 1960s, ‘70s, and the present day.

While laws like the Equal Pay Act have made it easier to combat such blatant bias, subtler forms of discrimination in hiring and compensation persist, contributing to the pay gap between men and women. A Pew Research Center analysis puts overall women’s earnings at 84 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2020. And it’s worse for women of color. The National Women’s Law Center estimates the pay gap for Black women at 63 cents for each dollar earned by White men.

D.C. has the widest wage gap for Black women. This 72-year-old doesn’t need data to know that.

Skeptics will consistently attribute the pay gap not to gender or race bias, but to personal choices, such as taking time off to raise children — but that clearly wasn’t a factor for last week’s teen lifeguard, who was hobbled with a lower wage right out of the starting gate. Speaking of whom, she has an update:

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After the pool company told us they were going to start paying us all the same wage of $13.50, I replied that this still did not address the initial wage disparity where Steve and Tony were making $14/hour while Natasha and I were making $12.50. Steve and another lifeguard, a woman who was making more than us and whose pay was not affected by the change, also weighed in. None of us got replies. Steve, the woman and I quit. The day after we quit, the company gave the remaining lifeguards (Tony and Natasha) a big pay raise to $15.50/hour.

I took the first step in filing a complaint with the EEOC by filling out their online inquiry form, and I should have an interview with EEOC staff later this fall. I am also preparing a complaint for my state’s employment agency.

What I found surprising and upsetting was adults in my community who didn’t think I should have said anything. One mom told me I should be careful about complaining because they could fire me. One dad told my mom the wage difference was just a fact of life. Another said it was my fault because I didn’t ask for more money when I was hired. (I actually had asked for more on my application form but was told they could only pay me $12.50.)

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But I am encouraged by the supportive comments on I didn’t realize how many women in different jobs have had wage discrimination happen to them.

I am lucky I had the luxury of quitting. I am not supporting a family. I don’t have debt or living expenses. But just because I am a teenager doesn't mean I shouldn't be treated fairly by my employer!

Karla: I’m delighted that so many are standing with you, and disappointed — though not surprised — that others would stand in your way.

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Some people have to experience or witness injustice firsthand before they believe it exists. Some have trouble recognizing anything subtler than overt discrimination as a problem. Some want to steer you away from taking action because they know exactly how hard the powers that be can hit back when challenged.

That’s why it’s all the more important for those who have energy for outrage, awareness of their own rights and privileges, a keen eye for subtle inequality, and relatively little at risk to speak up on behalf of themselves and others. Like you and Steve and your adult colleague. That’s how we overcome “It is what it is” inertia and nudge reality closer to “It will be what it should be.” That’s why so many readers are rooting for you and looking forward to an update from you in the coming months.