Fair pay is fair play

May 11 marks a sobering moment on women's economic calendars. It symbolizes the day women finally earn the same amount their male counterparts earned in 1999. It has taken them 16-1/3 months to earn what men made in 12 months.

Women average 73 cents for every dollar men make. For minority women the gap is even wider, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity. Black women average 63 cents on the dollar, down from 65 cents in 1996. Hispanic women's wages dropped from 57 cents to 53 cents.

To spotlight the problem, the Washington-based committee is designating tomorrow as Equal Pay Day, with a variety of events taking place around the country. Among them:

In Colorado, advocates will carry red purses to show that women's pay is "in the red." In Nebraska, the Commission on Women in Lincoln will send a letter to nearly 100 companies, explaining how they can audit their pay practices. And in New York, groups will stand at commuter train stations during rush hour, handing out "equal pay" cookies with a piece missing to reflect the wage gap.

Such efforts, however worthy, inevitably provoke controversy. Critics claim that inequities in pay simply reflect market forces and women's fluid work patterns as they move in and out of jobs to care for families. But differences in experience, education, or qualifications explain only half the difference in wages, the pay equity committee finds. Even at the top, men continue to outearn women.

Equal pay for equal work is an old problem. In 1867, my great-grandmother wrote a letter to my great-grandfather during their courtship. "I am teaching here in town this winter," she explained at the beginning of her second year of teaching. "A Mr. Pope teaches the other school. I have 32 and he has 30 scholars. He gets $50 per month and I $25. They say he never taught before."

Two years later, she wrote another letter about teachers' salaries. "Mr. Gillmore is going to teach here this winter, and [my friend] Alida the primary grades. Mr. Gillmore gets $50 and Alida $28.... The doctor did not want to pay quite as much as $50, but the rest were willing so he hired him. Alida asked $28, and the doctor said he would not beat her down as long as they paid Mr. Gillmore so much."

What magnanimity!

In March, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan called for an end to discrimination against women and minorities. And President Clinton has proposed a $27-million Equal Pay Initiative. Some of that money would help the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handle wage-discrimination suits based on gender.

At the same time, women need to help themselves. The National Committee on Pay Equity urges women to heed the 4 R's of fair pay:

*Recognize that the wage gap exists. Be aware that your point of entry on the wage scale affects your pension, promotions, and pay raises.

*Research wages in your field.

*Rehearse your message. Practice saying, "I am worth more than that!" Then let your value be known.

* Reorganize the workplace. Talk to other women in your company and gather support. If you feel underpaid or undervalued, others do, too.

Fair pay is fair play. What could be more logical in a progressive new century than making women's paychecks more equitable with those of all the latter-day Mr. Popes and Mr. Gillmores in our midst?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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