Pay inequality a common occurrence in America

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Former New York Times editor Jill Ambrasom and Kansas teenager Jensen Walcott share a common experience: both were fired after questioning why they were paid less than their male counterparts.

While both employers defended the firings – claiming the decisions were unrelated to gender – pay inequality is standard practice in the U.S., according to the annual wage-gap report by the nonprofit advocacy organization National Association for Women & Families.

It takes a woman 12 months to earn the same salary as a man who works about nine months in the same job. The report, based on census data, showed that for 2016 the median annual pay for a woman who holds a full-time job is $40,742 while the median annual pay for a man who holds a full-time job is $51,212.

It’s worse for women of color and trans women.

Thousands of women marched on Washington at the Women’s March. (LAPX file photo)

Black women are paid 63 cents, Latina women earn 54 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, while Asian women are paid 85 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, the report  said.

“Numerous studies show that the wage gap persists regardless of occupation, industry, education level or perceived personal choices,” said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Walcott was hired at Pizza Studio in Kansas, where she was fired after she asked why she was paid $.25 per hour less than her male co-worker. Her employer claimed she was fired for violating a policy that forbids disclosing pay, which may be in violation of former President Obama’s Executive Order- Non Retaliation for Disclosure and Compensation Information.

On the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, Abramson was fired after her attorney inquired why she made $84,ooo less than the editor who preceded her at the start of her tenure as executive editor. Her attorney also asked why she was paid less than male predecessors in two different positions that she had previously held within the The New York Times’ hierarchy. The Times said she was fired largely because of her abrasive management style, though The Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. acknowledged this has long since been business-as-usual in the NYT newsroom and said that the changing standard is form of modernization.

Both Walcott and Abramson did not respond to Baltimore Post-Examiner’s requests for interviews.

While the gap has lessened at a rate of less than half a cent annually since the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, it still will take decades for women to be fairly compensated. Black and Hispanic women won’t receive equal pay until 2124 and 2148, respectively,  according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

No progress made with trans women pay gap

Trans women  saw their pay drop by nearly a third when they changed their public gender presentation to be feminine, an even steeper disparity than faced by cisgender women, according to a 2008 study. The 2015 Transgender Survey suggests that there hasn’t been significant progress in the past decade, revealing that trans women experience disproportionately high rates of poverty.

“I did experience a pay decrease after I transitioned from a salary of around 80K, to unemployment, to 65K – all within a period of six months. Several people I know, including myself, have retrained for other careers. Many others may not have had skilled positions that they were able to fall back on once they transitioned ” said Abby Malson, 38, a Denver software developer, who also works with Executive Pride, an LGBT workplace equality advocacy organization.

While career changes may contribute to the pay gap, the gap can still persist among employees in the same field.

“I myself was surprised when I first started looking at this,” said Hillary Lips, Emerita professor at Radford University’s Center for Gender Studies. Lips said that she expected the wage gap to disappear once she accounted for differences in education, hours worked, among other factors.

“But no matter what…there’s still a gap,” she said. “So I think that shows there’s something really deep going on here, and I think that has to do with discrimination.”

Disparities in treatment

Transgender Americans can experience both sides of the gender pay gap, a reality which “illustrates the often hidden subtle processes that produce gender inequality in workplace outcomes,” according to Rice University researchers Kristen Schilt and Matthew Wiswall.

“A lot of it is unconscious,” Lips said. “I don’t think people are usually deliberately saying ‘this is a woman, we can get her for less’ – though I’m sure that sometimes happens.”

Wage discrimination isn’t just a problem with starting salaries – it also emerges in the work conditions that shape opportunities for promotions and raises.

Women are less likely to be chosen for a promotion because “they have to walk this line and be careful not to be seen as too pushy and [as] masculine, but also not to be too soft and be seen as wimpy,” Lips said. “There’s plenty of social psychology research showing that people don’t like women who are assertive…I’ve seen a lot of research on it, and I’ve also seen it happen.”

For trans women, transition into femininity “often brings a loss of authority, harassment, and termination,” according to the 2008 study; meanwhile, trans men “often experience increase in respect and authority.”

Some trans women endure being misgendered at work to avoid the pay gap.

“One of my transgender friends who has worked as her ‘correct’ gender for years, had difficulty finding a new position using her legally changed name after she was let go from her director level position, Malson said. “After several months of unemployment, she ended up finding a position when she kept her resume and information more ‘androgynous’, and just never made it a point to correct anyone since the gender on her license is not updated to reflect her correct gender. Wage gaps do not exist if companies do not know you are a transgender woman – or a woman at all.”

Sexual harassment in the workplace can also prevent women from advancing their careers, Lips said. Women who feel unsafe at work won’t perform as well as they would otherwise, she said – and because they know they aren’t respected, they are less likely to seek promotions and raises.

The resulting pay gaps from these patterns of discrimination can impact entire fields. “If you get a few more women [into a male dominated field, then those women benefit,” Lips said. “But if the occupation ends up with significantly more women, then the salary drops.”

Countering discrimination

 “We need the strongest possible legislation to counter the many forces that keep the pay gap in place,” Lips said.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would enable women who have been unfairly compensated to participate in a class action lawsuit. The Act was re-introduced to Congress on April 4th –Pay Equity Day – as it has been every year since 1997.

A few days before Pay Equity Day, President Trump rolled back Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces – an executive order by President Obama that required companies seeking contracts with the federal government to prove their compliance with existing labor laws. That order banned forced arbitration for disputes involving sexual harassment. With the order revoked, companies seeking federal contracts will be able to settle sexual assault allegations outside of the courtroom – and outside of the public eye.

State legislation may provide protections for working women not on offer from the Trump administration. Maryland’s Working Families organization is promoting the “Women’s Economic Security Agenda” – which includes legislation preventing employers from basing a new employee’s pay on previous earnings. This could break the cycle that existing pay disparities have on women throughout their lives, said Charly Carter, executive director of Maryland’s Working Families.

“Employers who engage in his hiring practice can unknowingly continue existing pay gaps when they carry over the precedent set by an employee’s previous job,” Carter said.

Proposed legislation in Maryland would also mandate paycheck transparency. The law would forbid employers from preventing employee discussions about their salaries. It would also require public disclosure of the salaries of certain positions, adding an additional layer of protection for Maryland residents in case the Obama-era executive order is overturned.

Pay transparency allows women to hold employers accountable under the Equal Pay Act, which outlaws pay discrimination based on gender.

What if?

In 2015, American women lost a combined $84 billion, according to the Report by the National Association for Women and Families. If women were paid equally to their male counterparts, their households and the American economy would thrive.

If the average American woman were to be paid equally for her labor, then each year she could afford either “1.5 years worth of food, more than five additional months of mortgage and utilities payments, nearly eight more months of rent, nearly 12 more months of child care, 1.1 additional years of tuition and fees at a four-year public university, or the full cost of tuition and fees for a two-year community college” according to the NAWF report.

Eliminating the gap would significantly decrease the poverty rate in the US, and would thereby decrease dependence on social programs, including TANF, according to a 2014 report by the National Institute for Women’s policy research.

“The poverty rate for all working women would be cut in half, falling to 3.9 percent from 8.1 percent. The very high poverty rate for working single mothers would fall by nearly half, from 28.7 percent to 15.0 percent” the report said.