Women limited by culture

Steven Harbaugh

Pay gap may be bounded by gender biases

The image of women has changed drastically from the 1920s, but there is still room for improvement with women’s rights in the workplace.

Credit: Steven Harbaugh

Ninety-four year old Anna Dennis of Akron made only 19 cents per hour working in a steel mill in 1927. Her raise in 1936 boosted her income to 38 cents per hour. “Women got jobs instead of men because they’d work for less,” she said, seated at a chair in her room in Stow’s Haven Homes Assisted Living Center. Men at this time made about 55 cents per hour and sometimes more — a wage differentiation that wasn’t addressed until the 1963 Equal Pay Act.

But in some ways, the pay gap hasn’t been resolved. In response to the 2003 figure that women still make 20 percent less than what men make, Jenny Marston, an attorney on workplace fairness issues that relate to women at the National Partnership for Women and Families said the General Accounting Office found that when existing factors were controlled, a pay discrepancy will still exist. This could be attributed to several factors — one of them being discrimination, she said.

And discrimination is what Dennis felt first-hand. She said she never was treated well as a female worker.

“Most of my friends before the war were homemakers, though,” Dennis said. “I had to go to work, so my family could eat. I often wonder how we made it on only 19 cents an hour. We were hungry and poor.”

During the war, the factories were filled with women who worked for less. Dennis moved to producing oxygen masks at the Goodyear factory in Akron for the war effort and eventually made $1.67 per hour. But she lost her job when it was outsourced to Puerto Rico for women who made 67 cents per hour.

A new generation of discrimination

One of the biggest setbacks to women earning more in the workforce is that today’s family doesn’t always resemble the family of the past — a fact some institutions cannot grasp. For instance, co-parenting, a term used to describe scenarios with divorced or separated parents, adds a new dynamic to trying to raise a family. For example, an employer may not be able to grasp a split custody family situation where a female might need time off to care for her child because that is her set time to do so.

The institutional inability to understand that some family scenarios are different is what is causing this pay discrepancy, said Chris Link, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, an organization that has pressed for women’s rights in sweatshops and the military.

About 80 percent of American women become mothers. And despite evolving parenting roles, the mother still does 65 to 80 percent of childcare, according to a University of Maryland study.

“Women take the brunt of the discrimination on family issues,” Link said. “This country does not provide safe, affordable childcare in all situations. Our work situations are not very flexible. We don’t always have paid leave when we have new children, which is a standard in European countries.”

No paid maternity leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 made it a requirement to allow 12 weeks of unpaid leave for child rearing purposes, whether it is to care for a newborn or a newly adopted child. Fewer than half of those who use this option are actually paid. And this act does not apply to those who work less than 1,250 hours per year at one employer or those that work for small businesses.

The United States is unusual because the government does not require employers to pay employees while they are on leave, something that is a standard in other countries. In Canada, women receive a mandatory paid 15-week maternity leave. In Germany, mothers can take a 14-week paid maternity leave and then either parent can opt for a monthly social security sum until the child turns 2. And in Norway, mothers receive 42 weeks of paid maternity leave with the option to extend it to 52 weeks and still get paid 80 percent of the wages they would make if they were working.

An American ideal that paid maternity leave is not important is what is holding women back, Link said. The United States lags behind other developed countries when it comes to policies surrounding families and work, she said.

Why discrimination happens

Why this institutionalized discrimination against women occurs in America is difficult to pinpoint. Some point to how American society has regarded women through history, not allowing them to vote or own property in the past. Other experts point to our social mindsets and expectations of the roles women should have.

Though the pay gap is closing quicker for women in the upper-middle class tax bracket, it still does not fare well for those in the working class or near the poverty level, Link said.

And she blames the current administration.

“The conservative position is kind of anti-family,” she said. “There’s no health care, no uniform day care, no paid family leave. Those are government policies that would be very pro-family that are typically opposed by conservatives.”

Some liberals cite a recent primarily Democratic push to raise the minimum wage in Michigan and Iowa as a pro-family move that would help those parents struggling to raise children.

Gender’s role in the job market

At the Women’s Museum in Dallas, the only national historical museum for women’s history in the United States, there is an exhibit that explores the gender associations with jobs. A large, metal abacus in the museum is emblazoned with the word “MEN” on one side and “WOMEN” on the other. Visitors then slide jobs to either side, depending whether they expect the job to be filled by men or women. For instance, hairdressers and social workers usually end up underneath WOMEN and mechanics and doctors usually end up underneath MEN.

“Women’s work is not valued as much as men,” Martson said. “These gendered roles show that the jobs women have are valued less than those that men have.”

Marston said in her experience, she has noticed there definitely is a pay gap between men and women, and it could be attributed to the gendered expectations of jobs.

Feminism’s role

The Feminist Majority arrived on the scene in 1987 to respond to the lack of women in public office — a factor the group attributed to the pay discrepancy between men and women. The organization, which also runs Ms. Magazine, a feminist publication, has morphed into a general women’s rights organization that deals with a variety of issues today.

“One of our focuses is to encourage women to take leadership positions wherever they are,” Susie Gilligan, a spokeswoman for the Feminist Majority, said, citing that it will help the pay gap.

The battle has not yet been won, Gilligan asserted, adding that it will take nearly 200 years for women to be equal with men in politics at the rate of growth happening currently. More women are involved in governmental positions than when the group first started, but there’s still room for improvement, she said.

“Equality is the goal for our organization,” Gilligan said. “It is, and always will be, equality.”

A survey of 50,000 working women by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations found the women they surveyed felt that the only way to change the wage gap is to work together with other women and women’s rights organizations and unions. Talking openly with one another and breaking down the idea of salaries being a secret were pervading themes. Because, after all, the motto in those unions that advocate for women’s concerns has always been: Equal pay for equal work.

Contact religion and culture reporter Steven Harbaugh at [email protected].