Most people can measure their status at work by four P's: paychecks, promotions, performance reviews, and perks. For women, it is paychecks that often speak the loudest about how employers value them - or undervalue them. Despite gains, many women still earn, on average, just 74 cents for every dollar men earn, reports the US Census Bureau.
Do the math: That's 26 cents per dollar lost. Over a working lifetime, that potential income adds up to staggering losses. As one example, the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington calculates that the average 29-year-old working woman with a college degree will lose $990,000 to the pay gap over her career.
To emphasize just how much that income gap between men and women costs women, the Working Women's Department of the AFL-CIO last week launched an unusual Web site - www.aflcio.org/women/equalpay.htm - for equal pay. A visitor to the site simply enters her current salary, age group, and education level. Then the screen shows how much the pay gap could cost her.
For a hypothetical 40-year-old college-educated woman earning $40,000, the figure is $844,107. In real life, of course, some women's losses will be lower - or even nonexistent.
Wage discrimination has been against the law for 35 years. Yet systematic underpayment on the basis of sex and race still pervades the workplace. Since the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, the wage gap has closed at the rate of less than half a penny a year, giving new meaning to the term "snail's pace."
Women secretaries, for example, earn about $100 a week less than male clericals, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity. For women lawyers, median weekly earnings are nearly $300 less than those of male lawyers. Median pay for women professors is $170 less than men's. Women elementary school teachers average $70 less than their male counterparts. The list of disparities goes on.
Two myths persist. The first is that women work for extras - vacations, clothes, second cars. In truth, women work for the same economic reasons men do - to pay the rent, buy food, finance college educations, save for retirement, and yes, buy extras too.
The second myth holds that the pay gap is a women's issue. Not true.
More than ever, it's a family issue. Dual-income couples now make up 45 percent of the labor force, according to Catalyst. Every underpaid married woman is contributing less to her family's income than she could. For women who are single or the sole wage earner, lost income poses an even more acute problem, since there is no second paycheck to help make up the losses.
Money remains a taboo subject for many Americans. They'll tell the most intimate details of their personal lives to friends and even strangers. But discuss salaries? Excuse me, that's private.
Karen Nussbaum, director of the AFL-CIO's Working Women's Department, hopes the equal-pay Web site will help to break that silence. As women and their co-workers calculate the hidden losses in their earnings, she says, "You can bet there are going to be some good conversations." One woman told Ms. Nussbaum she plans to print out her estimated lifetime pay loss before meeting with her boss for her yearly review.
Nussbaum hopes the Web site will also serve as a "call to action." That action, as she sees it, includes enforcing existing laws and expanding them.
"Right now, you're only covered if you're doing the exact same job as the guy down the hall," she says. West Virginia, she notes, passed legislation for public-sector employees that provides equal pay for work of equal value.
What could be more logical? Yet only as more employers follow suit will women's paychecks truly reflect another P: progress.