On Equal Pay Day, busting a few wage gap myths with pay equity advocate Julie Schwam Harris

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IMAGES MONEY / CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0
  • IMAGES MONEY / CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0

On Equal Pay Day, women's advocates call attention to the gender pay gap — the phenomenon in which, year after year, women are found to be making less money than men.

According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, women are still making an average of 80 cents for every dollar a man makes, with wider gaps for black women (63 cents) and Latina women (54 cents). This is true even across similar occupations — for example, women doctors make about $20,000 less than their male counterparts — and education levels. One recent Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce report found that women need an extra degree (such as a bachelor's degree to match a man's associate degree) to attain comparable earnings.

This year's Equal Pay Day symbolizes the date a woman has to work through to match what men made in 2017.

To mark the occasion, Gambit caught up with self-described "volunteer activist" Julie Schwam Harris, a retired city administrator who works with organizations such as Independent Women's Organization to lobby lawmakers on pay equity and related issues in Louisiana, which is home to one of the nation's largest pay gaps. (In the current session, Harris has concentrated on Senate Bills 117 and 149, which would ensure pay equity for state contractors and protect people who talk about their pay with co-workers from retaliation.) We asked her to address a few common equal pay myths.

Myth #1: Women make less money because they prefer flexible jobs that prioritize the needs of their family over work.

It can be true, Harris says, that sometimes women — especially primary caregivers — need to choose jobs that allow them to take a more active role in child care. But the pay gap begins even before women have children, where even recent female college graduates make about $3 less per hour than their male peers.

Women who are mothers also pay a penalty that's independent of the type of work they've chosen. While men are found to receive a salary increase or benefit for becoming parents, women's wages suffer, and they are sometimes seen as less invested in their jobs by employers (whether or not that's objectively true).

Myth #2: Women make less money because they don't negotiate well.

"[Negotiation is] a double-edged sword," Harris says. It doesn't always work in women's favor — women who negotiate too strongly can be seen as aggressive, and some researchers have found that there is a social penalty for women job applicants that men don't experience.

The other issue with negotiation is that women often start from the position of being underpaid in the past, undermining their ability to negotiate up to a comparable salary as their male colleagues, Harris says. Some states (and the city of New Orleans) have passed laws prohibiting employers from asking about job applicants' prior salaries for just this reason.

Myth #3: The pay gap exists because women are more likely to choose jobs in lower-paying fields.

"Even when women are in these high-powered jobs, when they're in the kinds of roles that should be making higher wages, they're making less than men in those roles," Harris says. The wage gap pops up in almost every occupation, from lower-paid service jobs like restaurant work to high-paying occupations such as computer programming.

It is true, however, that jobs that have been historically dominated by women are paid less than jobs that are dominated by men. What's more, once women start moving into a once-male field, the pay for those occupations begins to fall.

Myth #4: We already have laws that address the gender wage gap.

There is federal law that prevents wage discrimination based on gender. But Harris says stronger state-level protections are needed to protect workers from wage discrimination, improve enforcement and to encourage transparency about pay from employers.

Anti-wage secrecy laws, she says, are one of the most powerful tools in combating pay inequity because they can help workers know their real market value. Workplaces with greater pay transparency are thought to show improved morale and decreased turnover; greater transparency can also help employers address unconscious bias as it applies to compensation (for example, assuming a married woman doesn't need a high salary.)

"Inequality is not always intentional. Sometimes it's just from the antiquated attitudes about women," Harris says. "[But] they know a large percentage of it is just this discrimination. ... We have explanations for some of it, but we don't have explanations for all of it."

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