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Women have certainly come a long way in the work force, but their pay hasn't yet caught up. In fact, the gender gap in earnings has remained unchanged for the past decade despite the fact there are more women in the labor force than ever before and they are more productive and better educated than they've ever been.

Full-time working women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn for doing the same work.

For minority women, the wage gap is even larger. In 2005, black women earned only 66 percent of the earnings of white men, and Hispanic women earned only 55 percent.

The pay gap affects women at all income levels and across a wide range of occupations.

A 2003 Government Accountability Office study that I commissioned with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., showed that when occupation, marital status, job tenure, industry and race are accounted for, women still earn 80 cents for every dollar men earn.

Critics have pointed to the lifestyle "choices" of women to account for the wage gap, but evidence suggests other forces are at work.

The glass ceiling for women in the workplace may have some cracks in it, but it certainly hasn't been shattered. Women continue to bump up against everything from biases relating to gender stereotypes about hiring, pay raises and promotions to egregious acts of discrimination against pregnancy and care-giving responsibilities.

Just a few years ago, Boeing agreed to pay between $40 million and $72 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by female employees who argued that they had been denied equal pay, overtime pay, promotional opportunities, management positions, training and other benefits because of their gender.

In 2005, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found in favor of the person bringing charges of sex discrimination in 25 percent of the formal complaints filed that year.

Skeptics argue that women choose flexible work schedules or lower paying jobs in order to have more time with family, thereby creating a self-inflicted wage gap. The reality is that mothers are often forced out of good jobs due to inflexible work schedules.

Very few women have the "choice" to stay home with their children because most American families today rely on two wage earners. In 2005, nearly two-thirds of women with young children were in the labor force.

Moreover, there appears to be a "mommy penalty" and a "daddy bonus" related to pay.

The GAO has found that women with children earn about 2.5 percent less than women without children, while men with children enjoy an earnings boost of 2.1 percent, compared to men without children.

Estimates of how much women stand to lose over their lifetime due to unequal pay practices range from $700,000 for a high school graduate to $2 million for doctors and lawyers, according to the WAGE project.

Passing legislation such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Paycheck Fairness Act would go a long way toward creating a society where women are treated and compensated fairly.

The ERA would help eliminate sex discrimination and deter potential offenders, and the Paycheck Fairness Act would empower women to negotiate better pay and toughen penalties for employers that break the law.

More companies are discovering that doing right by families improves their bottom lines - by lowering health-care costs, turnover rates of trained workers and absenteeism - and we should create incentives for employers to do more to accommodate working parents.

The first woman speaker of the House of Representatives and a woman running for president of the United States are clearly signs of progress for women in our society. But we must continue to strive for fair pay and for all women to have real choices in the workplace.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York is the senior House Democrat on the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress. This commentary was distributed by McClatchy Newspapers.

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