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.
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:
Experience and education. Women's relative shortfall in full-time work experience remains a leading source of wage inequality, accounting for one-third of the gender pay gap in the late 1980s, according to research published last year in the Journal of Labor Economics.
Women make up 68 percent of part-time workers. They also more often take time off to care for children or elderly relatives. "Children are associated with lower wages for women but not for men," notes a report this month by the president's Council of Economic Advisers.
Women do get penalized for time off. A 1994 study of nearly 200 women with MBA degrees showed that those who took leave after childbirth - averaging eight months - earned 17 percent less than did women who never took time off.
Today, however, the trend is toward greater continuity in the work force by women, including mothers. Unlike in the 1970s, when women often left paid work during mid- career years to care for children, women's pattern of labor participation now much more closely resembles that of men. In 1996, for instance, 54.3 percent of women were back on the job by their baby's first birthday.
Meanwhile, women are entering the work force with greater education and skills. Women now earn more bachelor's and master's degrees than men do. And last year, many more female high-school graduates (70.3 percent) went to college than did male (63.5 percent).
Gender segregation of occupations. Another nearly 30 percent of the pay gap arises from the clustering of women in traditionally female job categories, which pay less than blue-collar trades that are still dominated by men.
For example, most of the nation's 3 million secretaries and 3.6 million teachers are women, as are the majority of nurses and cashiers.
"We still have a long way to go when you look at the occupational categories and the participation rates of women," says Labor Secretary Alexis Herman.
Much has changed since the 1960s, when newspapers ran "Help Wanted - Male" ads offering higher pay for men than for women doing the same work. Back then, women were discouraged from careers in medicine and law and were virtually barred from skilled trades.
In the 1970s and '80s, the segregation of jobs by gender declined as women moved into traditionally male jobs. From 1983 to 1997, the proportion of employed women who worked in managerial and professional occupations increased from 23 percent to 32 percent. More than 25 percent of lawyers and physicians are now female.
But even as women break into jobs that were formerly male bastions, they are still paid less. "There is a pay gap in every job category," says Karen Nussbaum, director of the working women's department at the AFL-CIO in Washington.
Discrimination. "Discrimination is clearly still a factor in the labor market today, and that is why enforcement efforts are very important," says Ms. Herman.
At least one-quarter of the wage gap is the result of differences in pay between men and women "working in similar jobs and establishments," according to a study published this year by economists of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass.
For example, Jones and other female "custodians" who vacuum and dust inside congressional suites contend that their work is the same as that of the male "laborers" who wash the hallways and polish the brass banisters outside. "We do just as much work as the men, and they get paid more," Jones says.
In addition to holding down women's pay, discrimination prevents women from being hired and promoted into better-paying jobs.
Finally, gender biases long entrenched in wage structures continue to hamper efforts to increase wages for what was once unpaid "women's work," such as child care, says Ellen Bravo, head of the 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women in Milwaukee. "Women's work has been devalued," she says.
Given the long-term trends in women's work experience, education, and inroads into male occupations, some experts anticipate that the wage gap will continue to shrink, albeit slowly and unevenly. "It is clearly a work in progress, but we've come a long way," says Herman.
Still, advocates of equal pay stress that without stronger and better-enforced antidiscrimination laws, it will be difficult to close the gap.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963, which now covers women in most jobs, prohibits pay disparities between men and women who are performing work under similar conditions that is "substantially equal" in skill, effort, and responsibility.
The reach of the law is limited, however. Men and women must work in the same establishment; hiring discrimination is not covered; exceptions are made for seniority and merit systems; and the maximum compensation is double three years' back pay.
As a result, plaintiffs in equal-pay lawsuits often also bring claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which more broadly prohibits sex discrimination and allows damages of as much as $300,000.
Enforcement of the law is also lacking, partly because it is difficult for people to learn how much others earn. "The key is having the data," says Jocelyn Frye, director of legal and public policy for the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy group in Washington. "A lot of times people don't have access to information that will allow them to know whether they are being paid unfairly."
Over the past 12 years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which holds enforcement authority for the Equal Pay Act, has filed only 164 cases, resolved 251 lawsuits, and recovered some $16 million. Hampered by understaffing and underfunding, the EEOC often takes more than a year to resolve a case.
Federal and state legislative initiatives aim to strengthen laws against pay inequity in several ways.
The Paycheck Fairness Act, which has been introduced in the Senate, would combat pay discrimination by bolstering EEOC resources, allowing higher penalties and compensation for violations of the Equal Pay Act and lifting gag rules imposed by employers who forbid employees to discuss wages with co-workers.
Meanwhile, equal-wage advocates are seeking federal legislation that would make it illegal for employers to pay part-time workers - the majority of whom are women - at a lower hourly rate than they pay full-time employees doing the same job.
And more than half the states have taken action or passed legislation since the 1980s to create a principle of "comparable worth," eliminating wage disparities between traditionally male and female occupations, such as janitor and clerical worker. A Fair Pay Act bill with similar aims has been introduced in both houses of Congress.
For Jones and her female co-workers, winning the right to unionize in 1996 gave them a weapon for combatting alleged wage discrimination by the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), a federal body that oversees all House and Senate buildings. The AOC declined to comment on the case, which is expected to go to trial in 1999.
"I've known about the wage gap for years, but we didn't have the backing or unity to do anything about it," says Jones, who this January was elected chief shop steward in her union. "It was like whispers in the night," she says. "Nobody heard."
Women in the Workplace
How women have fared in six professions:
Judges in states' highest courts
1985: 23 / 1997: 78 (actual number)
1975: 24.7% / 1995: 34.6%
1972: 2.0% / 1997: 13.3%
1964: 4.9% / 1997: 11.1%
1983: 2.1% / 1996: 1.4%
1986: 1.4% / 1997: 4.9%