For as long as I can remember, I have never questioned whether women and men should have equal rights in the workplace. My mom worked outside of the home during my entire childhood. Born in 1981, I am one of the oldest members of the Millennial generation and I was not unique among my peers in being raised with two parents who both worked outside of the home. In my world, both women and men had the choice to work outside the home in any position for which they were qualified. Perhaps my upbringing sheltered me a bit from reality, but I didn’t realize until I was an adult that my perspective has not historically been the norm and that there are still people in the workplace who don’t feel that women have an equivalent place. In addition, the way that our national workforce has evolved and the opportunities available for men and women have created systemic discrimination.
This systemic discrimination has created the gender pay gap. The Equal Pay Act, passed in 1963, requires that employers pay men and women equally for equivalent work. Despite this law, studies consistently report that women on average make 85 percent of men’s pay. The pay gap is even more stark for women of color, with African-American women making on average 60 percent of the pay of White men and Hispanic women making on average 53 percent of the pay of White men.
Those individuals who doubt the existence of the gender pay gap often use anecdotal evidence of their own experience to prove it. It’s not uncommon to hear a statement like “men and women in the same job are treated exactly the same at my company. We can’t be unique in that.” There is some evidence to support that when you control for similar positions, educational requirements, skill requirements and other qualifications men and women are paid similarly. The statistics come out closer to women earning 97 percent of men in that case. This is likely more true for certain jobs than others. Examining the issue from a more global perspective, however, reveals where the 85 percent statistic comes into play.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2015 the top three most common occupations for full-time female workers were “elementary and middle school teachers,” “registered nurses,” and “secretaries and administrative assistants.” The top three most common occupations for full-time male workers were “driver/sales workers and truck drivers,” “managers, all other” and “first-line supervisors of retail sales workers.” The average weekly earnings for men across the Top 10 occupations most frequently held by men is $882. The average weekly earnings for women across their top ten occupations is $780, or 88 percent of men. Women are more likely to be employed in occupations that pay lower wages, and even in those lower-wage positions, they are likely to be paid less than men. For example, the median pay for female elementary and middle school teachers is $957 and the median pay for male elementary and middle school teachers is $1,077. Again, women in this position across the country are paid 88 percent of what men are paid.
Another telling statistic is that one of the Top 25 occupations for men reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is “chief executives.” This does not appear in the top 25 for women. BLS reports for chief executives, men hold 72.1 percent of positions and women hold 27.9 percent of positions. One of the key learnings for company leaders is that culture and company policies start at the top. When a woman is leading a company, it may be more likely that she recognizes the necessity of balancing the scales between men and women in the workplace, particularly in the area of pay. Even so, companies cannot assume that placing a woman in the top leadership role will fix all gender disparities. It still requires effort and intention.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the Equal Pay Act. If an employee feels that she has been paid unfairly in comparison to her male coworkers, she can file a charge with the EEOC. Some companies may feel protected from equal pay claims because of the mistaken assumption that an employee would need to pay an attorney in order to bring a claim. In fact, this is a free process managed by this government agency and a claimant does not need to hire an attorney to engage in the process. If a company receives a claim of pay disparity, it will need to show a justification other than gender in order to avoid liability.
It is difficult for a company to solve any pay disparity issues it may have without taking a hard look at its salary practices to see if any issues actually exist. If a company suspects there is a problem or receives an employee complaint, it can undertake an analysis of its employee salaries. Such an analysis will seek to compare equal pay for equal work and look for statistical disparities in pay. When any such disparity is found, it will require one of two solutions: (1) identify documented business justifications for the disparity (such as a seniority, merit, or incentive system; pre-hire qualifications such as education, experience, training, and ability; participation in a training program; or market factors) or (2) increase the pay of the individual with the lower pay.
Focusing on the status of this issue locally, Arizona has one of the slimmest pay gaps in the nation, but there is still quite a bit of work to be done. As we celebrate the Most Influential Women in Arizona in the July issue of Az Business magazine, one step we can take is to ensure that women have access to the appropriate training and education to enable them to take high-wage jobs. Another is to ensure that traditionally female-dominated professions, such as teaching, are paid fair wages. The recent #redfored movement has championed this cause. Finally, as more Millennials like myself begin to accept leadership roles, the perspective on women’s role in the workplace should shift, both naturally and with intentional effort, to recognizing their equality.
Jennifer Ward is the Arizona president of the Employers Council. An ASU undergraduate who eventually went on to earn her law degree at the University of Southern California, Ward’s legal background and her employment law expertise have helped serve countless Valley businesses, empowering employers with the necessary tools and resources to effectively manage, develop, and support employees to the highest degree. Ward joined Employers Council in 2014 as a staff attorney and was promoted to the position of Arizona president in January 2017.