The Wage Gap: Myths vs. Realities

By Heidi Hartmann

We owe a debt of gratitude to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for pointing out the differing perceptions people have about the gender wage gap. In April, she invited me on her show to set the facts straight on the wage gap and I hope that I helped her to do that

By now, most Americans are likely familiar with the 77 percent figure, meaning that, at the median, women’s wages equal only 77 percent of men’s wages both for full-time, year-round work (in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available). This figure, provided annually by the U.S. Census Bureau, has come under criticism from conservative economists and others for a variety of reasons for the past several decades—so much so, that this simple and accurate figure is now viewed by many media outlets as suspect. One New York City newspaper even refused to allow an op-ed writer to include a number such as this provided by IWPR based upon government data.

On an April 30 broadcast of  the Sunday morning television show, Meet the Press, Ms. Maddow pointed out that another guest on the show, conservative-leaning CNN commentator Alex Castellanos, seemed to deny that men’s and women’s wages are unequal. After first countering that wages were equal, Mr. Castellanos said they were unequal but that was due to good reasons such as women working in fields like science or math, or women taking time off to have children, and so on. Mr. Castellanos was echoing justifications provided by conservative economists over the years to ignore the size of the wage gap by imagining that it is really much smaller than the data show, or that it may reflect women’s preferences—therefore, no government action to end discrimination is necessary.

While often those on opposite sides of an issue agree on facts but disagree on solutions, Ms. Maddow’s point is that, in terms of the wage gap, there exists a major difference in belief about the facts. In such circumstances, it is impossible to come to a compromise and agree upon a solution. Just as conservatives have spent decades challenging the role of government in regulating pollution, banks, or big business, they have spent decades challenging the popular wage gap number, and for a similar reason—to avoid policy changes. Let’s review what conservative economists have been saying.

Some economists challenge the 77 percent figure by pointing out it does not compare women’s and men’s earnings in the same jobs: in other words, the figure implicitly compares truck drivers, who are mostly male, with secretaries, who are mostly female, for example. Yes, the figure does compare women and men across the whole economy, but do we believe women should receive lower pay because they are any less talented, competent, or hard working than men? Given their equal competency, shouldn’t both women and men be able to find jobs in the economy that pay them what they’re worth?

When citing the wage gap, it may be more accurate to say, as President Obama often does, that women earn only 77 percent of what men earn for an equal day’s work (rather than for equal work).

A second set of reasons economists give for challenging the 77 percent figure is that the women and men being compared are not identical. More women than men have likely taken at least a year off from work in the past to take care of children, even if they are working full-time, year-round now. Also, more working women than working men are single parents. More married working fathers than married working mothers have stay-at-home spouses, allowing them to focus on full-time paid work.

Critics who cite these issues suggest it would be more accurate to compare single workers without children in restricted age ranges, where time spent working and work life careers are presumably more similar. But does it make sense to consider only subsets of workers? Shouldn’t women and men expect equal earnings when they provide equal effort and skill on the job whatever their age, marital, or parental status?

Yet another set of economists’ favorite reasons revolves around women’s choices. Perhaps women chose more family-friendly jobs that pay less, for example, because they provide more flexibility in exchange for the lower wages. Interestingly, data about the nature of jobs held by women and men cannot confirm this hypothesis. According to a recent survey IWPR conducted, single mothers have the least flexible jobs and college-educated white men the most flexible jobs.

Ms. Maddow was correct to point out that Mr. Castellanos is denying a reality that many women experience every day, lower pay than they deserve for the work they do. Many economists have been denying this reality for a long time. Let’s hope women’s voices and women’s votes in this election season make it clear that women’s lower wages must be addressed by stronger public policies.

Dr. Heidi Hartmann is the President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

Facing the Wage Gap as a Female College Grad

IWPR Research Intern Vanessa Harbin

by Vanessa Harbin

As someone who considers herself to be pretty plugged in to gender issues, I have often heard the statistic about the ratio of women’s and men’s earnings, and figured I knew most of the story. The past few months I have been going merrily along pursuing job leads in preparation for graduation from my master’s program next month, without even considering how I personally might be affected by the wage gap. Surely, as a young woman with a graduate degree, my salary will be right up there with my male peers, right? Since I haven’t seen much difference in the jobs being pursued by and offered to my female and male classmates, isn’t it a given that we’ll be getting paid equally?

Then I began helping with the research at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) looking at trends in women’s earnings and labor force participation over the past few decades. First, I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t until 1984 that college-educated women earned as much as men with a high school diploma, and it took another seven years until they earned as much as men with some college education or an associate’s degree. Then, I saw the wage gap between men and women with at least a college degree—it’s the biggest gap between men and women at any level of education. And even though the gap for all workers in my age group (age 25 to 44) is the lowest in 30 years, it’s still almost 14 percent (according to IWPR’s micro data analysis of the Current Population Survey). Even when women get into highly-paid and fast growing sectors like science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) fields, they are paid 14 percent less than men—a much narrower gender gap than many other professions, but a gap nonetheless.

Yet, I know that I’m extremely lucky to be where I am. Women with low education and skill levels can not only expect to earn less than their male counterparts, but often struggle to make a livable salary. Men with poor literacy skills have substantially higher earnings than women with the same abilities. And even with higher literacy levels, women still face a wage gap.

Learning the statistics has shown me that the wage gap does indeed exist and impacts women’s earnings—even highly educated women.  It is important to be aware that the playing field might not be even and to inform policymakers about this persistent discrepancy in earnings. IWPR will be releasing an analysis of the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on the wage gap with occupations.  Our research on pay equity will be discussed at an Equal Pay Day congressional briefing April 17 organized by the Fair Pay Coalition. If you can’t make the briefing, you can still stay informed on this issue by visiting our website.

Vanessa Harbin is a Research Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She is currently completing her master’s degree in public policy at Georgetown University.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

Living on a Dime: Small Wages and Large Gender Wage Gap in Restaurant Industry, According to Recent Report

By Margaret Kran-Annexstein

If I were to tell you that there are workers in the United States being paid $2.13 per hour, you’d probably tell me that that’s impossible because the minimum wage in this country is $7.25 and anything less is illegal. Well, you’d be right of course, but unfortunately, regulations on the tipped minimum wage have not kept up with the federal minimum wage.

In February, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), in conjunction with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and a number of other organizations, released Tipped Over the Edge: Gender Inequality in the Restaurant Industry. Among its other findings, this report exposes the restaurant business as an industry that has found a way to skirt the federal minimum wage, exacerbate the gender wage gap, and further reduce the economic security of employees by not providing health insurance or paid sick leave to most workers.

In 1991, the tipped minimum wage was 50 percent of the federal minimum wage. However, when the federal minimum wage increased in 1996, the tipped minimum wage remained the same and has not been adjusted. Today, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the tipped minimum wage remains at $2.13 an hour, less than 30 percent of the generally accepted $7.25 federal minimum wage. Although some states choose to raise that minimum, these regulations allow the restaurant industry to shortchange a vast number of its employees—a disproportionate number of whom are women.

As a student with many female friends working in the restaurant industry to help pay enormous tuition bills, I was disturbed by the findings of this report. The reality is that tipped workers often must rely on the generosity of their customers to make a living. Technically, employers are supposed to pay the difference if a worker does not make the minimum in wages plus tips but this requirement may not always be upheld or enforced. As one woman from Fort Worth, Texas testifies, “I can’t tell you how many times I made less than $20–$40 a day during the lunch rush…LOTS…I don’t understand how restaurants get away with not paying their employees minimum wage…”

Gender Segregation in the Dining Room

The notion that women and men should be paid equal wages is also overlooked due to hiring practices in the restaurant industry that solidify the gender wage gap. Female restaurant workers make on average 79 percent of what men do because women tend to hold the lower-paid positions in the restaurant world.

Women, especially women of color, hold a disproportionate amount of jobs in lower-paying restaurants while men dominate fine dining establishments—where wages can be 24 percent higher than wages in family style restaurants. Women who do obtain positions in fine dining are seldom hired as captains or martre d’s, the higher ranking, cushier positions with more supervising duties and less reliance on tips. One account from Tipped Over the Edge quotes a general manager refusing to hire a qualified women of color saying, “You don’t have the look to be a maître d’, but I can hire you as a hostess.”

There are laws that effectually set in stone wage inequality because these different ranks in restaurants hold different minimum wage requirements (the restaurant industry is one of the only sectors where you can find this discrepancy).

Many restaurant workers simply do not have enough money to support themselves: servers are forced to use food stamps at almost double the rate of the rest of the population. Rather than hold employers accountable to their staff, taxpayers have become responsible for the livelihood of many employed people through the size of their tips and the generosity of state programs.

“Try Not to Get Sick”

Not only do many restaurant workers receive painfully low wages, they often cannot afford to stay home when they get sick. In fact, ninety percent of restaurant workers lack paid sick days. One testimony from Tipped Over the Edge quotes a laughing manager telling a sick employee, who was concerned that if she did not go home she would make others sick, to “try not to cough.” Ninety percent of restaurant employees also lack employer-covered health insurance, making it even more difficult for them to seek medical care. Not only is this a violation of workers’ rights, it doesn’t make me feel very safe when I go out to try the best veggie burgers in DC.

My friends have to work in these unfair conditions but, unlike many restaurant workers, they have health insurance from their parents and are not providing for dependent children. For a single mother supporting a child on her own, Tipped Over the Edge shows that the restaurant industry can be a hostile work environment that lacks adequate living wages. Clearly change needs to come to the restaurant industry.

Margaret Kran-Annexstein is a Communications Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

Literacy, Women, and the Workforce Investment Act

This blog was originally posted on the Workforce Innovation Team blog. In honor of March being Women’s History Month 2012, the Workforce Innovation Team has reached out to their partners who specialize in women’s needs and promoting positive public policy. 

By Jane Henrici

The Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) released in February our fact sheet showing our gendered analysis of the most recent (2003) National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) data. We find that low levels of literacy tend to hurt women’s earning levels more than those of men: “…women need higher levels of literacy than men to earn wages that are comparable with men’s.”

To address this issue, IWPR recommends that educational policies and programs take gender into account and consider adult education and literacy classes as of particular help to women, especially those with dependent children. IWPR research on women’s educational levels, workforce participation, and immigration integration, also finds a need for improved and targeted remedial and bridge opportunities, English language classes, and job training that will help women get better jobs and careers—including those at the highest levels of wages, in STEM fields. Like others with whom IWPR is partnered, particularly in our research on student parents as part of IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative, we see reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) as an opportunity for learning and training that responds to the needs across the different states to help prepare women workers for employment demands.

To get out of poverty, women must be able to earn enough to take care of themselves and their families and, to do that, women need to have the skills to begin careers and then move up in fields where jobs are growing, including those in the health and care work occupations. At a minimum, women are going to need to be able to read and, increasingly, they are going to need a postsecondary education and possibly a postsecondary degree. A number of public as well as private efforts, including WIA programming, can help women to get started.

Do you think WIA programming is key to addressing the inequality gap that women still face in today’s workforce?

Jane Henrici is a Study Director with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

Women Workers in a Post-Walmart World

By Katherine Kimpel

Last week, the Supreme Court issued a decision that makes it harder for women in the workplace to protect their rights to be free from discrimination.  In reaching their decision in Dukes v. Walmart, the Justices—the five men who wrote the majority opinion, notably overruling the objections of all three women on the court— assumed that discrimination in the workplace just doesn’t really happen that much anymore. But Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the other men on the court didn’t cite any evidence, didn’t refer to any studies, or even bother to tell any anecdote to back up that claim. They didn’t bother to contend with the fact that individuals and government agencies continually litigate, prove, and then settle or win employment discrimination cases—cases that show that discrimination is, alas, alive and well.

For example, just last year a jury in New York federal court delivered a unanimous verdict against Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, finding that the corporation had discriminated against female employees in pay and promotions, and had discriminated against pregnant employees. Although the over $250 million dollars resulting from that verdict was significant, even more important were the 23 pages of changes to policies and procedures that the company later agreed to in order to settle the case.

You see, the brave women who stood up to Novartis to bring that lawsuit helped more than themselves.  They helped the other women at Novartis, by getting the company to change. They helped other women working in the pharmaceutical industry, by sending a message to employers that discrimination will not be tolerated and that litigation can result in just and heavy penalties. And they helped the government, by holding a global corporation accountable to our federal civil rights laws.

Congress knew, when drafting the civil rights laws, that we could never expect the government to shoulder enforcement by itself. They created a system where individual Americans could stand up and act as private attorneys general—essentially privatizing, in part, the enforcement of equal opportunity. However, had last week’s Supreme Court decision in Dukes v. Walmart been the law of the land in 2010 when Novartis was decided, the brave plaintiffs in the case may not have been successful, and the changes at Novartis may never have happened.

For women workers in a post-Walmart world, it is undeniable that the scales are weighted more heavily in favor of corporations, scaling back the progress for which our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers fought so valiantly. That sad fact does not relieve us of responsibility; instead, it simply means that we will all have to fight harder and with more determination than before.

On a day-to-day basis, this fight takes shape in advocating for yourselves in negotiating starting salaries, demanding rightful raises, and pushing aggressively for promotions. This fight takes shape in developing trusted coworkers who will help you benchmark your compensation and better understand the ladders to success. This fight takes shape in keeping detailed records of all of this and of your employers responses, good or bad, so that if the day comes when you or they need to get outside help, you’re ready. This fight takes shape in refusing to be silent when you or a coworker is underpaid, passed over for promotion, subjected to harassment, or disproportionately disciplined.

All of those things are necessary and good, but they are not enough. Women workers— indeed, all workers—in a post-Walmart world need to be proactive about this affront to our fundamental right to equal opportunity. Educate family and friends, write letters to your local paper, and contact your elected representatives to let them know you’re paying attention, you’re concerned, and you expect the Supreme Court’s over-reaching on behalf of corporations to be corrected.

Justice Scalia and the four other men of the majority got it wrong when they assumed that our world is a better place than it is, when they assumed that discrimination doesn’t happen anymore. They got it wrong when they decided that protecting corporations was more important than protecting individual Americans, be they men or women of any race. But the underlying faith in people wasn’t entirely misplaced. Every day, I work with men and women whose bravery to stand up for what is right inspires me. The moment now calls for the rest of us to also stand up to a Supreme Court that has gone too far.

Katherine M. Kimpel is a Partner of Sanford Wittels & Heisler, LLP, a national law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, and California.  Ms. Kimpel received her law degree from Yale Law School in 2006. She served as class counsel in the Velez v. Novartis gender discrimination case and authored the amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Dukes v. Walmart. Before joining Sanford Wittels & Heisler in 2007, Ms. Kimpel served as Special Counsel to Senator Russell Feingold on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she handled criminal justice and other civil rights issues for the Senator.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

Healthy Families Act Hearing

HFA Hearing Photo
Dr. Jody Heymann, Heidi Hartmann, Dr. Rajiv Bhatia and Mr. G. Roger King (Photo by Michelle Schafer)

On Tuesday February 13th, experts and Senators alike braved the wintry District weather to attend a hearing on the Healthy Families Act. Senator Kennedy, Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee sponsored a hearing to discuss the need for the Healthy Families Act. Dr. Heidi Hartmann, IWPR’s President, was among those invited to testify. One of her strongest arguments for paid sick days for families included a study done by IWPR that found employers would save an estimated 9 billion dollars in turnover costs. The logic behind this figure is that workers with paid sick days will be more likely to retain jobs therefore lowering the cost of rehiring for their positions by 43%. IWPR’s research provides the best reasoning for why the Healthy Families Act actually benefits businesses, an issue that Senators Enzi (WY), Isakson (GA), Allard (CO) seemed to be most concerned with.
Dr. Hartmann also reminded Senator Enzi and the committee that passing the Healthy Families Act would actually have a positive effect on wage inequity between men and women. Achieving pay equity has been a goal of Senator Enzi’s and of other committee members in other legislation, the Workforce Investment Act among others. Dr. Hartmann emphasized the importance of family leave for women who are often the primary care givers of children and the elderly. With seven paid sick and family care days to be provided by their employers, women would be more able to take a day to care for themselves or a family member without the fear of losing their jobs, a change that will help them retain their jobs and become eligible for seniority-based wage increases and promotions, thus leading to wage increases and contributing to narrowing the wage gap.
Dr. Jody Heymann argued for the Healthy Families Act through an analysis of international competitiveness. Her statistics showed interestingly enough that although the US is among the top 20 most competitive economies in the world, we are the only one without paid family leave. She said that 145 countries provide such leave and that 100 of them provide a month or more for employees. Senator Sanders (VT) seemed most impressed with the international comparison data, while Senator Brown (OH) asked about the data on cost savings.
The hearing was well attended by Acorn members and representatives of various women’s groups. All the Senators and witnesses spoke in favor of paid sick days (it’s hard to be against them), but one witness and several Senators expressed concern that it would cost too much and drive away business. The record was left open so that further questions could be addressed by the witnesses.
– Elisabeth Crum