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The San Francisco Chronicle

Pay Inequality Additional Burden For Women of the 99%

Gloria Steinem inspired by Occupy protests

Esmé E. Deprez

Gloria Steinem says the issue of pay inequity is still all about gender. (Dan Steinberg / AP)

For Gloria Steinem, the international conversation that the Occupy Wall Street protests sparked about economic inequality is, at its heart, about gender.

Start with the thousands of dollars in student loans that saddle the average U.S. college graduate. Women "are paid unequally - so they are going to have a harder time paying back that debt," said Steinem, the 77-year-old feminist who helped start the women's rights movement with the publication of Ms. magazine nearly 40 years ago. "It's outrageous because they are kind of indentured when they graduate."

Steinem's comments echo a common lament among young women in the Occupy movement, which began on Sept. 17 as a demonstration against the widening wealth gap and an economic system that protesters say favors the rich.

The unemployment rate for college graduates ages 20 to 24 rose to 9.1 percent last year from 8.7 percent in 2009, the highest on record for that demographic, according to the Project on Student Debt. Add to that the burdens of student loans, and young Americans say they don't stand much chance.

Graduates owed an average $25,250 in 2010, estimates the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit research organization in Oakland. Women entering the workforce with that liability are at a disadvantage: They earned 81 cents for every dollar their male counterparts did, on average, in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Worldwide protest

The Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York spread to cities on four continents, including London, Sydney, Rome and Tokyo.

The demonstrators refer to themselves as "the 99 percent," a reference to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz's study showing the richest 1 percent control 40 percent of U.S. wealth.

Steinem said the Occupy protests have inspired her, and that they have enjoyed more support than the U.S. civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s that took longer to reach a broad audience. "It's much more immediately international," said Steinem, who participated in the earlier causes.

The movement's success in bringing attention to income inequality may help narrow the gender-wage gap, said Mary Gatta, a senior scholar at the Washington-based nonprofit Wider Opportunities for Women. The more people, and especially young women, talk about it, the more likely society is to reject the notion that it's irreversible, she said.

"Seeing the pay gap as part of this larger economic inequality that's being talked about by Occupy Wall Street, I think, is very promising," Gatta said. "Awareness and education are really important."

Women made some progress between 2007 and 2010, as the wage gap narrowed in 35 states, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. It was smallest in Washington D.C., where women made 89 cents for every $1 a man did, and greatest in Wyoming, at 65 cents.

Among industries, the disparity is often greater in the finance sector, with female financial analysts making 70 cents on the male dollar, the census data show.

After the worst economic downturn in nearly a century, men continue to earn more than women in 361 metropolitan areas in the country, an annual survey by the Census Bureau found.

If current trends continue, it will take 45 years for women's salaries to equal that of men's, research by the Institute for Women's Policy Research shows.

Unequal pay

According to Steinem, U.S. women earn an average of $2 million less over the course of their lifetimes than men. It isn't because they stop working sooner, she said. "It's because they are paid unequally."

Steinem is the subject of an HBO documentary released in August, "Gloria: In Her Own Words," and is working on a book about her more than 30 years as a feminist organizer.

"Sometimes people say to me, at my age, well aren't you interested in something other than women's issues?" she said. "And I say 'show me one. Show me one that isn't transformed by including both halves of the population.' "

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