Another Day, Another 75 Cents
More than day care or harassment, America's 63 million working women say 'equal pay for equal work' is their No. 1 concern.
Most nights, single mother Dolores Jones checks on her sleeping son, locks the door of her brick duplex, and drives down dark, pot-holed streets to a graveyard shift as a custodian on Capitol Hill.Skip to next paragraph
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For the past 11-1/2 years, Ms. Jones has worked until dawn dusting paper-strewn desktops, emptying trash, and pushing her husky Hoover sweeper through abandoned congressional suites - alone but for a few dogged staffers or lawmakers asleep behind "Do Not Disturb" signs.
But while she is resigned to the wearing job, Jones is no longer willing to tolerate what she sees as a blatant injustice: Men who perform essentially the same work as she does earn $1 more per hour.
"We are tired of the unfair treatment," says Jones, one of 52 women custodians who last July brought a class-action pay-equity suit against their employer.
Many US women today share Jones's exasperation. Indeed, decades after women began breaking into the labor force in record numbers, the No. 1 concern of America's 63 million working women is the stubborn male-female wage gap.
"Equal pay for equal work" is the top workplace issue for the vast majority of employed women (94 percent), according to a nationwide survey of 50,000 working women by the AFL-CIO last year. It is cited more often than child care (33 percent), sexual harassment (78 percent), or downsizing (72 percent).
The emphasis on fairness is justified by facts:
* Today, as a result of discrimination and other factors, women still earn only about 75 cents for every $1 that men make, according to the US Labor Department's median weekly wage figures for 1997.
* On average, women earn $24,000 a year, compared with $32,000 for men.
* If current wage patterns continue, the average 25-year-old woman who works full time year-round for 40 years will earn $400,000 to $500,000 less than her male peer, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) in Washington.
Especially hard hit by the gap are the 2 of every 5 working women who, like Jones, are the sole breadwinners in their homes. The toll is also heavy on minority women, as well as the expanding number of older women, whose retirement security is hurt by lower lifetime earnings. (See related story, Page 8.)
"It's been hard on me in terms of keeping up with the mortgage," says Jones, who is divorced and supports her eight-year-old son and retired mother on $23,000 a year. Most of her female co-workers are heads of household, she says.
Moreover, even as women's participation in the labor force continues to grow - reaching nearly 60 percent last year - elimination of the wage gap is in no way assured, economists say.
Although the gap has narrowed slowly since 1980, when women's earnings averaged just 60 percent of men's, most of the change can be attributed to a backsliding by men rather than progress by women, says Heidi Hartmann, director of the IWPR. Falling wages for men account for about three-fifths of the shrinking of the wage gap since 1980.
But when men gain, as they did in the mid-1990s, the gap widens again. From 1993 to 1997, for example, men's wages rebounded as women's earnings stalled, leading to a wider gap.
Only very recently, in the first quarter of 1998, did the earnings ratio inch back up to 76 cents per dollar. Economists are unsure the trend will hold, attributing it to short-term phenomena such as the strong economy and a boost in the minimum wage. (Women are two-thirds of minimum-wage workers, so they benefit disproportionately from the increase.)
"There is a lot of reason for concern that we won't see the continued narrowing," says Ms. Hartmann.
Experts point to three basic reasons why women still earn less, despite progress in each area: