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May 2, 2013 at 11:29 AM

Civil Disagreement: Is the gender pay gap a Seattle problem?

Civil Disagreement pits two members of the Seattle Times editorial board against each other on a question of the day. It is an occasional feature of The Times’ Northwest Opinion blog. Here Bruce Ramsey and Lynne K. Varner take on the recent report that the pay gap between men and women is wider in Seattle than in any other major city.

varner,lynne-webYes

Bruce, I don’t believe that women are the victims of some vast conspiracy to work us harder and pay us less. Salaries are based on a subjective algorithm that includes education, experience and the personal choices we make in our lives.

In large measure, we women determine our pay by the choices we make, argues this New York Times piece. I agree. We move in and out of the work force more than men. Our work/career trajectory accelerates while we’re single and, for many women, drops after we marry and begin to raise families. That smacks to me of punishing us for the choices we make – choices I might add that work well for society. Better that I raise my child to be a contributing member of society than shirk that responsibility in favor of chasing wages.

But gender disparities in pay are not solely about personal choices. If so, that would be a Mommy tax we could easily dispense with. Changes in public policy are needed to address the problem in a comprehensive way. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act would fix the problem in part. The proposed law would make wage and salary information more transparent and easier to share for the majority of American workers. For example, companies could annually publish job titles and corresponding salaries in an accessible database. Employees seeking this information would be protected from workplace retaliation. I like this. We have to get over the American reluctance to discuss salaries and money.

Fifty years after passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, I hope society is beginning to view pay equity as not a women’s issue, but an economic challenge faced by families. Nearly half of households headed by women live in poverty. Your tax dollars go to help those families. About 12 percent of women over age 18 were the heads of their households. Their earnings are critical and society pays the cost in terms of social services for poor households, most of which are headed by women.

In turn, I and other women have to do more than get upset about the yawning gaps in pay based on gender. I was rooting around the website of a national organization devoted to equal pay and found a list of things women can do. Here’s some of what I gleaned.

Get educated.

Discuss pay rates with friends.

Read salary surveys, some are available free online.

Look for companies that not only pay well, but promote women throughout the organization, from the file clerks to the department heads.

Take more science, technology and math courses. Techology and engineering industries pay well and the fact that women are not as highly represented in those fields as men contributes to the wage gap.  Also, research shows that women earn more for every math course they take.

ramsey,bruce-webNo

Lynne, I wouldn’t be too worried about the “gender pay gap” being wider here. I doubt if the gap is about the Seattle area being a hotbed of discrimination. It is about the kind of jobs we have, which are jobs that disproportionately benefit men.

The Seattle area has a lot of computer, engineering and science jobs that pay well. I know a 22-year-old computer-science grad who has been hired for $120,000. I see tech people every day at lunch: most are men. That’s not discrimination; it’s that more men can do, and are willing to do, the sort of computer work for which Seattle’s employers are willing to pay good money.

The Seattle area also has well-paid blue-collar jobs: aircraft assembly, shipyard work, machine shops, stevedoring, commercial construction, etc. (In the rural areas it’s timber jobs, sawmill jobs, fishing, mining, etc.)  There are women in all these fields, but more men. Women can work hard for long hours, and from time immemorial many have, but more men than women can handle a jackhammer or a big chain saw, or hoist a garbage can full of trash.

Women have made huge strides in indoor work: law, accounting, finance, medicine, human resources, academia and government. Look at what has happened in journalism. Nursing, which was a low-pay “pink ghetto,” has become better paid because women had more alternatives to it.

The “gap” everyone talks about is not between men and women with the same jobs. It’s between men and women as groups. The comparison reflects the fact that more men than women are employed full-time, and that more men than women work overtime. It reflects that women leave the job to bear and raise children, and fall behind the men who don’t leave. It reflects women’s preference for jobs with family friendly policies, and safer jobs, even if the jobs pay less.

After looking at the “problem” of the pay gap, a federal study (“An Analysis of the Reason for the Disparity in Wages between Men and Women,” U.S. Dept. of Labor, 2009)  found that “there may be nothing to correct.  The difference in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”

The raw difference in pay has been shrinking. In 1979, women’s aggregate earnings were an average 62.5 percent of men’s; in 2006, it had risen to 80.8 percent. The reason for the rise, the study said, is that women have been making career decisions more like men.

A final note. For more than a decade, more women have been graduating from college with bachelor’s degrees. By age 25, some 30 percent of women have bachelor’s degrees, but only 22 percent of men have them, because more men drop out to work in construction, shipyards, etc. As this cohort ages, I think the aggregate pay gap will shrink further.

 

Comments | More in Civil Disagreement, Pro/con | Topics: children, congress, democrats

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