Speaking of Women's Rights: Three-quarters of the Way to Equality

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Three-quarters of the Way to Equality

Happy Equal Pay Day!! That’s the day in 2011 by which women’s earnings, starting from January 1, 2010, will have reached what men earned just in 2010.

You read that right: it takes women three months and twelve days longer to earn an amount comparable to what men earn in one year. According to the U.S. Census, on average, women in the U.S. earn 78.2 cents for every dollar a man earns. The pace of progress is excruciatingly slow; in fact, it has been getting slower over the past 15 years than in the preceding 20. And it continues to be worse for women of color. (Men of color also earn less than white men, not surprisingly.)

Please do not try to tell me that this is about “women leaving the workplace to have children,” or “women don’t negotiate for themselves,” or “other factors actually make the difference.” Even in my own profession, where we should be able to believe that women lawyers can stand up for themselves, it turns out that if you control not only for occupation, age, experience, education, and time in the workforce, but also for childcare, average hours worked, grades while in college, and other factors, in one study women graduates of the University of Michigan law school made approximately 81% of what males made.

It’s not just the numerical pay disparity that is so disheartening. Pervasive stereotyping and abhorrent societal norms also play into the gap. A study of more than 25,000 people in the U.S. and Germany by a professor at the University of Florida found that very thin women earned an average $15,572 a year more than women of normal weight. A woman who gained 25 pounds above the average weight earned an average $13,847 less than an average-weight female. By disappointing (and arguably unhealthy) contrast, men were also penalized for violating stereotypes about ideal male appearance, but in a different way. Thin men earned $8,437 less than average-weight men. But they were consistently rewarded for getting heavier, a trend that tapered off only when their weight hit the obese level. The highest pay point, on average, was reached for guys who weighed a strapping 207 pounds.

The discrimination (you just can’t call it anything else) isn’t confined to what workers are paid. It applies to hiring as well. I wish I could say I was surprised to learn that in the world of professional musicianship, blind auditions result in more women being hired for symphony positions: if the judges don’t know it’s a woman playing, they are more likely to rate the musician highly. Using data from actual audition records, they found that blind auditioning increases by 50% a woman’s odds of getting past preliminary auditions, and by several times increases the chance that a woman will win the final round of auditions. As much as 55% of the increase in women in symphony orchestras since the 1970s results from the use of blind auditions.

And as the economy inches toward something that resembles recovery, women are being left behind. Yes, it’s true more men lost their jobs when the crash hit, largely because of the sharp reduction in manufacturing jobs. Unfortunately, women have actually lost jobs during the recovery: from the official start date of the recovery, men have gained more than 406,000, while women lost 370,000— a gap of 776,000 jobs. This at the same time that the number of single mothers or wives who support a household -- at 14.2% of U.S. households as of 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- has increased since the recession began, adding another layer of economic significance to any limits on pay and promotions for women.

Times are hard for everyone. But once a year (at least) it’s good to remind ourselves that until all workers in the U.S. are treated fairly, compensated equally, and valued for what they bring to the economy, there’s a lot of work still to be done. So congratulations on catching up, women, and here’s to adding a few percentage points in the near future!