Four years ago, the median weekly earnings of women working full time was 77 percent of the men's median. Today, it's 75 percent. In other words, the wage gap between men and women, which appeared to be narrowing, is widening again, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.
But don't read too much into these numbers, experts warn. A widening of the wage gap has much to do with larger economic trends - that men's wages are moving upward after leveling off (or dropping) for several years, for example. Also, weekly earning figures tend to fluctuate more than yearly earnings. And it's still too early to tell whether the influx of unskilled females into the labor force (a result of changes in the welfare law) is pulling women's wages down.
The real issue isn't that the numbers are going up or down a percentage point or two, but that, 34 years after the Equal Pay Act was enacted, there is still a wage gap. Women earned equal pay in only 2 out of 90 jobs tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1995.
Part of the problem is a lack of information. Women in the private sector often aren't aware of what they should be earning and what others in similar jobs make. When they're offered a job, they assume they're being paid fairly and only later discover that a man with less experience, for example, has been hired at a higher salary. Many women need to be more assertive in negotiating their salaries.
Another part of the problem is enforcement. The promise of the Equal Pay Act, which prohibits employers from paying unequal wages to men and women who perform equal or substantially equal work, hasn't been fully realized - because it hasn't been vigorously enforced.
Though there has been some obvious progress, a cultural bias against women workers remains, experts say - a perception that women aren't supporting families and therefore don't need to earn as much; or that women are likely to take time off from work to raise a family and therefore aren't as committed to their jobs. Yet a great many women are supporting families. And, as Susan Bianchi-Sand of the National Committee on Pay Equity points out, women shouldn't be undervalued just because they're mothers.
Top-level management should sit down with personnel department planners and look at who in the company is being paid what. Perhaps those women who have returned to work after raising a family would benefit from refresher courses to bring them up to speed on new developments and techniques. And all women would benefit from rules making clear they won't be financially penalized for taking a maternity leave. Companies should value all their employees, women included, paying them according to responsibility and talent.