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Equal pay for equal work

04/28/03 12:00AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(Host) April 25 marked the first year anniversary of Vermont's Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, and commentator Cheryl Hanna has some thoughts about the wage gap and some pending legislation to close it.

(Hanna) In the mid-1980's, someone gave me a button that said "69 cents." It was meant to describe the difference in earnings between men and women who worked full time - what's known as the wage gap. For every dollar a man earned, a woman doing the same work earned only 69 cents.

It struck me as absurd that an employer would pay men and women differently. Besides, it was against the law. The federal government had already passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, and I figured it was only a matter of time before I'd have a new button that said $1.00. As it turns out, closing the wag gap hasn't been as easy I thought. Twenty years later, that button would read only "78 cents." In Vermont, that number would be 84 cents - better than the national average - but still 16 cents shy of full equality.

So last year, the Vermont Legislature passed the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act. It extended federal law to employers of all sizes and made it easier to sue for violations. But one of the problems with both state and federal law is that it's hard for a woman to know if she's being paid less than her male co-workers. Currently, employers aren't required to release statistical information about wages and gender, although a bill currently pending in Congress would remedy that.

In the meantime, most women find out by asking around the office. But many women fear that their employer will retaliate or even fire them for inquiring. So some in the Vermont House have introduced the Unlawful Employment Practices Bill. The law would protect workers who are attempting to discover whether they're being paid equally, with the goal of encouraging greater compliance. I'm all for passage of the bill, which simply makes good sense to me, but I'm skeptical that such laws alone will close the wage gap for good.

A closer look at the data suggests that the wage gap doesn't affect all women equally. In fact, childless women can wear buttons that say as much as "90 cents," while mothers are still somewhere around 75 cents. That's because moms take more time off from work, thus lowering their overall years of experience, and their overall pay. They're also willing to sacrifice salary for flexible work schedules, such as telecommuting. Dads who take time-off or use family friendly polices take a pay cut too, but it's not nearly as steep as those that moms take. So along with laws intended to stop blatant sex discrimination, we need more options for working families, such as paid parental leave and better child-care options.

Also, some studies have found that women aren't as good at negotiating their salaries as are men, suggesting women need to more assertive so we don't short-change ourselves. So while we've come a long way, there's still a ways to go before our sons and our daughters are both worth a buck.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.
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