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The Fight for Equal Pay

Women's Rights in Corporate America

One of the most subtle but life-altering realities for women in the United States today is the gender pay gap. Women have been fighting for years against misogynist, patriarchal workplaces that undervalue their abilities and skills, and of all the ways that women are discriminated against, this is one that can very tangibly change the way they live their lives. Lower income means less freedom in the way they spend their money and likely leads to increased levels of stress. According to Anxiety.org, 30 percent of women reported higher levels of stress due to financial reasons, whereas only 17 percent of men said so (Sharf). The head researcher stated that women may feel more stress about money because they feel obligated to take care of the home and children, which is another result of patriarchy. So not only does patriarchy pay women less, it puts us in a position to worry about how we’re paid less. This is the reality that women face going to work every day.

I would like to acknowledge, first, the privilege that allows me to write this piece. Being a white woman living in the United States, I am afforded many rights that a large portion of the female population does not have. Feminism in the US looks very different than in other countries, and I will attempt to keep this fact at the forefront of this discussion out of respect for the women who have fought for my rights and for the women who are still fighting.

It is difficult, almost impossible, to pinpoint when men began to be paid more than women, but we can examine when women had had enough of it. According to Time magazine, one of the earliest evidences of questioning the gender pay gap was in February of 1869 in a letter to the editor of the New York Times which ultimately led to a watered down version of a bill to prevent pay discrimination (Alter). One of the earliest, yet unsuccessful, strikes took place in 1883 by the workers of the Western Union Telegraph company, according to the same Time article. During WWI and WWII, women experienced greater opportunities for work and equal pay in the absence of the majority of men who were fighting, but after the war was over and the men returned, women were urged to stay home and allow for veterans to take their jobs back (Alter). As the 20th century continued, progress was made with the Civil Rights Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, the Family and Medical Leave act of 1991, and finally the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act made by President Obama in 2009 (Alter). All of these have brought us to where we are today, with women making somewhere between 77 and 79 cents for every dollar men make. (This statistic is debatable depending on who you ask and what you calculate, but it is definitely agreed that there is a noticeable gap.)

Many prominent women have championed this cause. Among them, Claudia Goldin, the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and director of the Development of the American Economy Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, conducts her research. Her piece in the American Economic Review titled “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter” summarizes how wages signal how much a worker is valued and how much human capital they have to offer. Goldin makes the case that women have closed the gap in differences in ability over the years, so there is not a reason that women should continue to be paid less than men. When women and men are educated at the same level, have access to all the same resources and work the same hours, there simply is no excuse for a wage gap. Many times it comes down to the fact, again, that women are typically working less flexible hours when they also have children to care for, but as Goldin puts it, Goldin quotes, "The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might even vanish if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who worked long hours and worked particular hours." (Goldin).

An organization that supports closing the wage gap is the Tides Center with their Equal Pay Today campaign. This group organizes various events and attends conferences dedicated to supporting women in their struggle for equal pay. They are very active on social media using the hashtags #equalpayday, #talkpay, and #time4transparency to promote awareness of this issue. The website also provides resources for research and information on the gender pay gap for those looking to learn more (Equal Pay Today).

The wage gap in traditional nine to five office jobs is much larger than in jobs with flexible hours - partly because of women still bearing most of the responsibility for their children and home. The video and corresponding article suggest that one way to shrink the wage gap is for women to look for jobs that allow them more flexible hours (Kliff). And while yes, flexible hours could be viewed as generally desirable, if a woman wants a nine to five job - maybe she functions better under that structure - she shouldn’t have to voluntarily take a pay cut for her preference.

With all the protests and footage and hashtags floating around about women’s unequal pay, the movement has been effective at gaining attention. It may not see as much attention as sexual harassment movements such as #MeToo, but it is getting noticed and published in the media. However, little change has yet to be made, at least here in the United States. While Iceland fines employers for not complying to its new legislation, the pay gap in America persists because women are still underrepresented in leadership both corporate and political (Carter). This article also suggests that part of the problem could be unconscious bias during the interview process, as well as the question of women’s previous salaries. The Equal Pay Act is filled with vague language that allows for loopholes to pay men more, the article states. The problem stems from capitalism as well, but that may be a little harder to change. Protests and social media storms are beneficial in raising awareness, but the fight is far from over here in the United States and elsewhere. Straightforward legislation, less biased interview processes, and increasing women in leadership are all steps we can take to a narrower pay gap.

A personal observation I made when conducting my research was the link between the wage gap and other issues that face women. For instance, as long as women continue to be paid less, their likelihood of descending into poverty increases. Studies show that women in poverty are five times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy and thus more likely to seek out an abortion (Boonstra). Abortions often lead to much shame and guilt thrown at the woman in question, but the system that shames is the same one that put them in that position in the first place. I’m not discounting women’s agency and ability to make a “good” life for themselves, but I do question the attainability of “The American Dream” as it has been presented historically. Being aware of the underlying biases and factors that influence women’s lives is key to knowing how to approach the fight.

The gender pay gap largely comes down to historical views of women’s roles in society, and the expectation that women can’t dedicate long hours to a job because of their duties in the home. It’s rooted in bias and discrimination, and we can no longer accept it as normal. Women are encouraged to feel empowered through the media, but when systems are in place to keep us out of power, that can feel like a losing battle. Once people can realize that these aren’t just issues that hurt women, but hurt society as a whole, maybe people will start to care a little more. That is what I see for the future - a way to show men and women that the world is bigger than themselves, inspiring passion and compassion in individuals to stand with each other instead of against. We are stronger together than we could ever be alone. 

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