Women mind the gap: gender pay disparity persists

Staff Writer

Despite societal images of female presidential candidates and feminine corporate CEOs, the practice persists of women workers being paid less than their male counterparts for the same work.

“When women graduate from college, there immediately is a pay gap between men and women,” said Carol Cohen, president of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) of New Jersey, and a member of the organization’s Freehold and Northern Monmouth County branches.

Such disparity has particularly come to light since the U.S. Department of Education released its 2015 College Scorecard, an interactive online tool aimed at providing a way for students to evaluate colleges and universities.

Discussion of the gender pay gap revealed in the data brought the issue into the mainstream, as opposed to only under the purview of feminists and other scholars.

“It is significant,” Jennifer Altman, a sociology professor at Middlesex County College in Edison, said of the issue. “It’s already known by economists and sociologists, but I’m glad this data came out so the public can be made aware.”

Research shows that women working full time in America are paid about 79 percent of what U.S. full-time working men are paid. In New Jersey, women make 80 cents to a man’s dollar, according to AAUW research.

Cohen said it’s even worse for African-American women. “In general, women of color are in a worse place than white women,” she said. While the public may not be fully aware of such facts, many women don’t need statistics to understand the issue of pay inequity.

Mary Pranzatelli of Bridgewater, vice president of Middlesex County National Organization for Women (NOW), has felt the slights firsthand during many years spent working in retail.

Not only did the unpredictable, demanding scheduling force Pranzatelli to drop out of college despite a high GPA, she also found later that her dedication to the work was not rewarded.

“It’s very rare that women move up,” Pranzatelli said, adding that department store sales floors are comprised mostly of women. “I remember talking to men that didn’t have the experience I had, and they said they were making $20 an hour.”

Despite the men’s lower levels of experience, they were paid significantly more than Pranzatelli.

In another incident, a lower-performing male colleague was promoted to a management position over Pranzatelli, she said.

“He actually had a much lower [performance] review score than me,” she said.

According to Cohen, men are not the only perpetrators of this type of discrimination.

“There were studies done where a woman was hiring and she hired a lower-achieving male instead of the higherachieving woman,” she said.

In addition, even if Pranzatelli had found a way to finish her college education, she would not have escaped gender pay inequity.

“What’s interesting with the pay gap is, it increases with increased education,” Altman said.

According to an April report from the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) — an agency within the U.S. president’s executive office — women and men with less education see the smallest differences in pay, while those with advanced degrees see the largest gaps.

Cohen speculated that the widening of the pay gap with education could have to do with the upward mobility afforded by careers that require higher education. With more rungs on the ladder come more risks for women to fall behind.

In addition, jobs that require less education tend to come with set rates of pay, while positions requiring a degree leave wiggle room in terms of salaries — also leaving room for female workers to end up with less in their paychecks than their male counterparts.

In line with the pay gap, women often fall short when it comes to negotiating salaries, Altman said. Even women with advanced degrees are less likely than men to negotiate pay on their first job offer, according to the CEA.

“Women don’t like to do that,” Cohen said, adding that some say it makes them feel pushy to push for a higher salary.

And it’s no wonder. Women who do negotiate often receive less than men, and doing so can even prove harmful to a woman’s career, according to the CEA.

“Women were more often penalized for initiating negotiations, largely because female negotiators, while perceived as technically competent, were also viewed as socially incompetent,” the CEA’s report states. “And even when women succeed in traditionally male roles, studies find that women are perceived as less competent and likable than men.”

The AAUW’s $tart $mart and Work $mart workshops teach young women how to effectively negotiate salary, Cohen said.

“Our whole mission … is to advocate and empower women to do the best they can do,” she said, adding that the workshops instruct women to “Sell yourself for your worth.”

When examining gender inequity in pay, parts of it seem attributable to a variety of underlying causes. One is that, when looking at the big picture of salaries by gender, some of the disparity could be because of the careers women often choose, according to the CEA.

“Although occupational segregation has fallen, women are still more likely to work in lower-paying occupations and industries,” the CEA report states, adding that career choices have been shown to explain about 49 percent of the gap.

“Be it gender roles, parental expectations, teacher tracking or expectations, or just culture in general, women are choosing different professions to some extent,” Altman said.

Still, according to the CEA, even when men and women are working in the same positions, the pay gap persists.

Some have also pointed to motherhood as a reason for pay inequity. The CEA states that women are often penalized for having children, albeit perhaps indirectly.

“Family leave is not paid for in most circumstances,” Altman said, adding that even women at the highest levels of their professions are doing more of the work at home than their male partners.

“Even with these areas … some studies show that still only accounts for about half of the pay gap,” Altman said. “How much of this is discrimination? How much is sexism?”

While those questions loom large, it’s not as if lawmakers are ignoring the issue. Dating back to the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislators have made efforts to bridge the gap in pay, along with hiring and promotions.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 provided more protections for women, and in April 2014, President Barack Obama signed two executive orders aimed at creating greater transparency around salaries to make equal pay laws more enforceable.

As of 2012, New Jersey has its own pay equity law.

“Companies should know by now that paying workers fairly is necessary for legal and ethical reasons,” AAUW’s 2015 report, “The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap” states, adding that employees who feel they are treated fairly typically perform better than those who don’t.

Companies that don’t seem to have gotten the memo on pay equity have been learning their lesson the hard way.

“Companies like Home Depot, Novartis, and Smith Barney have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle cases of gender pay discrimination brought by women employees under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act,” the report goes on to state. “Wal-Mart recently spent billions of dollars defending what would have been the largest class-action lawsuit in history, brought by women employees alleging systemic pay and promotion discrimination.”

The AAUW provides resources for women who experience gender discrimination at work. For more information, visit aauw.org.