April 17 is Equal Pay Day, a date that symbolizes how far beyond the end of 2011 and into the year 2012 women must work to earn what men earned in 2011. Equal Pay Day was established by the National Committee on Pay Equity in 1996 to raise awareness of the persistent gender wage gap in the United States. According to NCPE, the wage gap has narrowed about 15 percentage points during the last 23 years. At this rate of change, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that it will take 50 years to close the wage gap.
How are women faring in Rhode Island? According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, the median pay for a woman working full time in RI is $40,532 per year, while the median yearly pay for a man is $50,567. This means that women in RI earn 80 cents for every dollar paid to men, slightly higher than the national average of 77 cents. (There is evidence to suggest that our narrower wage gap is due to an erosion in men’s earnings, not an improvement in women’s.) However, women of color in RI experience significantly higher disparities. African American women working full time earn 65 cents for every dollar earned by men, and Latinas earn 47 cents for every dollar. Taken in total, full-time working women in RI lose approximately $1.5 billion dollars each year due to the wage gap.
At the same time, women in RI are increasingly responsible for providing for their families. There are 54,655 households in RI headed by women, and more than 25% live below the federal poverty level.
Why is there a wage gap? The wage gap exists, in large part, because of what economists call occupational segregation. More than half of all women work in sales, clerical and service jobs, and studies have shown that when women dominate an occupation it pays less.
While some of the wage gap can be explained by what some might call ‘personal choices,’ according to a Government Accountability Office study, the wage gap persists even when work patterns and education are taken into account. Interestingly, women with children are paid 2.5% less than women without children, while men with children experience a boost of 2.1% over men without children. In addition, women are paid less than men across industries. And, interestingly, even though women are attending institutions of higher education in record numbers, women with professional degrees are paid 67 cents for every dollar earned by men with professional degrees. Even more shocking, women with doctoral degrees are paid less than men with master’s degrees, and women with master’s degrees earn less than men with bachelor’s degrees.
Is there anything that can be done to help close the gender gap? Actually, there’s a lot:
Ask Congress to strengthen US laws to ensure gender equity in employment. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was an important step toward making it easier for women to challenge unequal pay. But the next step is to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would expand the scope of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Fair Labor Standards Act for the purpose of addressing income disparities between men and women.
Support programs that promote non-traditional career paths for girls. Programs such as Grrl Tech, run by Tech Collaborative right here in Rhode Island, work collaboratively with educational institutions to promote science and technology with high school girls from around the state with the express purpose of increasing participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) career fields.
Support programs designed to get more women into non-traditional jobs. Over ten years ago, the Rhode Island Commission on Women (recently de-funded) identified the need to move women, particular low-income women, into non-traditional jobs. They noted, for example, that a secretary made, on average, $26,000 while an electrician made $62,000. Rhode Island needs to invest in efforts to get more women into higher paying jobs.
Eliminate gender rating in the health insurance industry. Women already earn significantly less than men, but, in the individual and small group market, have to pay significantly more than men because being a woman is treated as a pre-existing condition. A bill before the General Assembly would make gender rating illegal, whether or not the Supreme Court upholds national health care reform.
Increase the minimum wage. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women make up nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers in the United States. The RI General Assembly is considering a proposal to increase the minimum wage from $7.40 per hour (established in 2007) to $7.75 per hour. Lest some think that increasing our minimum wage will make us less competitive, remember that the minimum wage is $8 per hour in Massachusetts and $8.25 per hour in Connecticut.
Carolyn Mark is president of the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Organization for Women (RI NOW). Melody Drnach is a RI NOW board member, past RI NOW president and VP Action for NOW in Washington, D.C.