Speaking of Women's Rights: 04/09

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Women in prison & legacy

Yesterday my friend Emma got me thinking about something I rarely think about: women in prison.

Emma has been working with Keeping the Faith – The Prison Project. It’s a non-religious arts program aimed at helping incarcerated women develop a sense of identity through writing, movement, and visual art.

Lately they’ve been working with the idea of “legacy” – the women in the program talk and write about the legacy they’ve been left by their families and the legacy they’re leaving to their children. Many of the women in the program didn’t complete high school; some have been in prison multiple times. Emma says they feel and are treated “like they’re worth nothing” on a daily basis, so considering the idea of legacy – leaving their mark in the world – is a heavy task.

A small amount of research yields big, sad surprises about women in prison. (Facts I kind of knew, but not really.)

Plus, the rights of women in prison are often violated in hideous ways – for instance, through the practice of shackling women prisoners during childbirth.

An entire generation of women faces a preposterously increased likelihood of spending time in prison. What is society saying to them about what they’re worth? What legacy are we leaving them?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's a woman's work worth?

April 28 was Equal Pay Day.

This is the day that the average woman’s pay catches up to the average man’s pay – from last year.

That’s right – on average, women still make just 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. And the wage gap is even greater when the impact of gender and race or national origin are combined: African-American earned 62% of the wages of white, non-Hispanic men, and Hispanic women earned just 53% of the wages of white, non-Hispanic men.

According to the National Women’s Law Center’s
state-by-state statistics, here’s the wage gap for women in the Northwest:

  • Alaska 74%

  • Montana 70% (5th from bottom)

  • Idaho 73%

  • Oregon 77%

  • Washington 75%
The largest wage gap is for Wyoming women (63%), and the smallest is in DC (93%).

The $60,000 question (bad joke intended) is, what accounts for this gap?

Some people make
facile and simplistic arguments that the wage gap doesn’t really exist – for example, that pay scales are gender-neutral, that equal pay advocates seek to pay underachievers the same as high achievers. (I know, why bother to read this stuff? I say, better to know thy enemy. And it sure is motivating!)

It’s true that women have made gains; at the time Equal Pay Act was passed, women made 59 cents to every dollar earned by a man. More women work at higher-paid occupations, and within all occupations, more women now work in higher-paid managerial and executive positions.

But more credible sources, such as the
Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that a gap persists even when a study controls for things like geography, personal choices (for example, choice of specialty in medicine), and gaps in employment. This fun interactive graph shows that even within the same industry, there is still, as one economics professor put it, a “mysterious seven-cent discrepancy that statistical analysis of individual characteristics and work history seems unable to eliminate.”

I find interesting the theory that, based on gains by women federal employees, federal hiring and promotion practices, standardized job descriptions, and the fact that salaries are public record may all have a role in eliminating wage disparities. (See
article.) The same theory holds that in unionized workplaces also have smaller gender wage gaps because of standardized and fairer, and more open, payscales and promotion practices.

Thus, for non-unionized workers, the lack of information, in particular, hampers the ability even to negotiate for what might be a fairer wage.

Would that there were a single magic bullet. Instead, let’s look to some strategies that together, can help move the ball forward on equal pay:

  • Continuing to combat wage discrimination by providing meaningful statutory remedies, with teeth. This is what the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act does, by allowing individuals to pursue claims without imposing unrealistic time limits and other restrictions on bringing such claims.

  • Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act likewise would strengthen federal equal pay law by, among other things, strengthening penalties for violations, and prohibiting retaliation against employees who ask about others’ wages or share information about their own wages.

  • Making sure that women who must leave work because of family responsibilities have equal access to unemployment benefits. (Read more about this here.)

  • Ensuring open access to wage information.

We at Legal Voice consider it our job to work on all of these. And what can you do? I encourage you to find out more about what your work is really worth by checking out these sites with information about wages for various public positions. (Kind of like Zillow, but for salary info.) And should you feel pangs of guilt for surfing these sites, no, you’re not being nosy – you’re helping the cause of gender equity!

p.s. If you find similar wage information at other sites, please feel free to post a comment with the link!