Equal Pay Day comes around every April. If you’re an average woman, that infamous day marks the time you have to work into the current year to match what an average man made in the previous year. According to 2009 statistics, the latest available, women working in the United States took home about 77 cents* for every dollar earned by a man.
Delaware women fared even worse, earning just 70 cents for every dollar in a man’s paycheck, according to the Delaware Department of Labor. Women’s wages lagged behind men’s in every industry except wholesale trade.
And in case you’re wondering, that gap costs Delaware families nearly $1.3 billion in lost wages each year, according to research conducted by the National Partnership for Women & Families. With 69 percent of Delaware women now bringing in more than a quarter of their families’ incomes and women heading more than 45,000 households in the state, wage inequality hurts both families and the state economy.
Indeed, if the gap were eliminated, each full-time working woman in Delaware could afford mortgage and utility bills for seven more months, rent for 11 more months, or three more years of family health insurance premiums. Necessities like these would be particularly important for the 21 percent of woman-headed families in Delaware currently living below the poverty line.
The gap has been closing at the rate of less than half a cent per year. At that pace, working women won’t likely achieve pay equity until 2058. So why are women still struggling?
Part of the problem lies with loopholes in the Equal Pay Act that have been interpreted by the courts in ways that undermine protections against pay discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would close those loopholes, passed the U.S. House of Representatives in the last Congress but fell two votes short of moving forward in the Senate last year.
Meanwhile, suing an employer, always a difficult, risky and expensive proposition, got even harder after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the closely watched class action suit by the women of Wal-Mart. “It looks like it’s going to be a landscape where individuals are going to have to bring their claims, and that’s very difficult to do,” says Mary Ellen Maatman, associate professor of law at Widener Law’s Delaware campus.
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Still, decades into the feminist movement, gender plays an undeniable role in the workplace and that can have a chilling effect on women’s options, forcing them into lower-paying jobs.
“Work is gendered at its core,” says Kathleen D. Turkel, assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of Delaware. “You can’t—at this point in time—get away from the role gender plays in what goes on in the workforce in terms of the assigning of jobs, the expectations in things like dress and presentation. It’s so deeply embedded that we don’t even see it.”
Real or perceived, discrimination can discourage women from seeking employment in better-paying, male-dominated industries. Indeed, compared to other industries in the state, construction has the lowest percentage of female workers but one of the smallest wage gaps.
That doesn’t surprise Janet Killian. Killian, who owns Gemini LLC, a New Castle-based commercial janitorial business, and serves as vice president of Wilmington Women in Business, recalls the tough time she had getting her business up and running.
“It was very difficult for me because it was an older, seasoned crowd and it seemed to me like I had to prove myself more and it took a long time,” she says. “There are still some customers that won’t talk to a woman.”
Killian succeeded, but the lack of role models in sex-segregated industries can force women into lower-paying fields, creating an unfortunate cycle. Indeed, just the presence of a “critical mass” of women in an industry can cause wages to drop, Turkel says. “It’s a pattern we’ve seen for a long time and it doesn’t seem to be changing. We tend to value the work that women do less than the work that men do.”
Nowhere in Delaware is this more evident than in the health and social assistance industry where eight of 10 workers are women. The disparity in this industry can be explained to some extent by the fact that males tend to be physicians, while women concentrate in jobs such as nurse aides and childcare, which are among the lowest-paid occupations in the industry, according to a report from the state Department of Labor.
The glass ceiling effect also contributes to the gender wage gap as women exit the corporate world for lack of mentoring opportunities. “There’s still a ‘good old boys’ network,’” says Saul D. Hoffman, professor and chair of the department of economics at the University of Delaware. “It happens almost everywhere.”
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Jennifer Bagley can attest to that. Bagley, who serves as president of Wilmington Women in Business, left the corporate world to become an independent financial services consultant. “I think people are attracted to people like themselves,” she says. “If women don’t find male sponsors, it’s going to be hard for them.”
But while study after study focuses on the gender wage gap issue, researchers at Cornell University have demonstrated that the pay gap between mothers and childless women is actually bigger than the gap between men and women. When participants were asked to evaluate the résumés of two equally qualified job candidates, one a mother, the other childless, mothers were 100 percent less likely to be hired than non-moms. They were also ranked as less competent and less committed and on average, offered $11,000 a year less in pay than an equally qualified, childless female candidate.
And what about the men? Fathers got higher ratings and salaries than non-dads.
“For men (family is) often viewed as a stabilizing influence,” says George Sharpley, economist and chief of the Office of Occupational and Labor Market Information in the Delaware Department of Labor. “The expectation is that when children come along, they’re not going to be the ones taking care of them.”
What do the data suggest? A large chunk of the wage gap can be explained by the impact of parental and marital status on men’s and women’s earnings, and unlike the gender wage gap, the parental gap is widening.
That mothers must work less and choose jobs that are more “family-friendly” helps to explain the penalty among low-wage earners. That mothers lose work hours due to childbearing helps to explain the penalty among the more highly paid.
But some of the penalty is just employer discrimination against mothers.
How might society redress this problem? “We can’t change who’s going to bear the children,” says Hoffman. “But we can imagine a world like other countries in which there’s more social support. The United States is at the bottom of that list.”
The reality is that the gender wage gap will likely linger as long as working women have—or plan to have—families.
Says Hoffman: “It’s a choice no one should have to make.”