Why do parking lot attendants get paid more than child-care workers? Is it harder work? Does it take more training? Is the work somehow more valuable to society? Or is it that most parking lot attendants are men, and most child-care workers are women?
Today is the day to ask these questions. It's April 19: Equal Pay Day.
Why April 19?
Imagine a man and a woman, averaged out over all the U.S. work force. He and she work in jobs of similar responsibility and level of expertise. If both started working on Jan. 1, 2004, the man would have earned a year's pay by Dec. 31, 2004. But the woman would have to continue working three months and 19 days longer to earn the same amount. It gives an unwelcome new meaning to the old saying, "A woman's work is never done."
Equal pay is a great idea. It just isn't a reality in America. At the rate we were going a few years ago, women wouldn't have achieved payday equality for several decades. But at least things were getting better. Things are now getting worse. Pay got less equal last year.
Averaged out over all pay and qualification levels, for every dollar a man is paid, a woman gets only 76 cents. Over the course of a lifetime, the average working woman gets shortchanged $523,000. That doesn't even count what she loses on pensions because of lower lifetime earnings.
White women make less than white men. African American women make less than African American men. Women with advanced degrees make less than men with advanced degrees. Women without a high school diploma earn less than men without one.
There are ways to start fixing the problem, ways states can make equality grow. Minnesota lawmakers, for instance, have some good ideas. Pennsylvania legislators: Listen up.
Thirteen years ago, Minnesota decided that the state government should stop contributing to inequality. At that time, women working for the state government were being paid 20 percent less than male employees in jobs at similar levels.
Minnesota adjusted pay for jobs that were undervalued. Nine out of ten of those jobs belonged to women. The state phased in the adjustments over four years. The entire cost to taxpayers was less than four percent of the state payroll.
A modest idea, but based on simple fairness. At the very least, the Pennsylvania state government shouldn't be contributing to inequity. Here are four other ways to make things better:
Do a better job in making sure job opportunities and educational opportunities are open to - and offered to - women, by strengthening affirmative action in Pennsylvania and the nation.
Women: Stand up for equal pay for yourselves and your co-workers. Sometimes that starts by looking for a job with a company that treats women fairly. It often means learning creative negotiating techniques - for starting salary and promotions - and self-promotion skills. If necessary, it means filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
Businesses: Act responsibly. Companies should use the U.S. Department of Labor Equal Pay Self-Audit Guidelines to audit their own practices.
Voluntary reform is best, but if companies drag their feet on fair pay, it may be time for federal and state legislation - Paycheck Fairness Acts or Fair Pay Acts. If some employers continue to undervalue women's work, legal penalties might be the only remedy.
To mark Equal Pay Day, a Pay Equity Quilt called "Stitching to Close the Gap; It Just Makes Sense," composed of 100 quilt blocks from across the state, will hang in the state rotunda in Harrisburg. What makes sense is that it shouldn't take women any more than a year of work to earn a year of pay. That's only fair.
© 2005 Philadelphia Inquirer