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After Much Clipping Away, It's Time to Close Pay Gap

September 20, 1987|BARBARA BERGMANN | Barbara R. Bergmann, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, is the author of "The Economic Emergence of Women." and

As we move toward the next election, candidates are going to be asked about better jobs and pay equity raises for women workers. There are millions of women--and millions of men, too--who think that women are still not getting a fair shake in the job market.

A recent spate of statistical reports on women's wages confirmed that, although women's wages are improving relative to men's, the gap remains large.

Women with four years of college who worked full time last year had incomes that were $12,000 less than men with the same education. Even more telling, these college-educated women workers averaged $2,400 less than men who only had high school diplomas.

For many years the ratio of women's pay to men's in the United States kept fairly steady at around 60%. This gave rise to a Biblical Theory of Wages. Some economists loved to quote the Book of Leviticus, which prescribed that working women should be valued at three-fifths the value of men. These economists delicately implied that God, in creating women, had ordained low wages for them on into eternity.

Now we know, courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that the Curse of Leviticus is slowly lifting from American women. Average wages of women working full-time have reached 71% of the average for men, up from 62% at the beginning of 1979.

Although Japan's treatment of women workers remains dismal, Europe and Australia are ahead of the United States in this respect. But some better-paying jobs are beginning to open up to American women.

Jobs as dispatchers are a good example. Dispatchers sit at a radio transmitter, and tell taxis or ambulances or police cars or fire trucks where to go. There is no valid reason to prefer a man in this job, and no reason to pay a man more than a woman.

In 1979, two-thirds of the dispatchers were men. They earned, on the average, $295 a week. On the other hand, women dispatchers earned $200, or 67% as much, as men.

By 1986, women held half of the dispatcher jobs. The pay situation had also improved somewhat, with male dispatchers averaging $403 and women $305, or 75% as much, per week. This means that some of the outfits that had previously hired only male dispatchers were allowing women to compete for those jobs.

Part of the credit may go to affirmative action plans, like the one that figured in a recent Supreme Court case. It involved a woman who got a dispatcher's job under an affirmative-action plan, despite the verdict of an interviewing committee, which preferred to hire a man. The committee had never put a woman in such a job. The court said that the affirmative-action plan was a valid response to past exclusion and that she could keep the job.

Women are getting more jobs at better pay in other previously male-dominated fields--for example as pharmacists, purchasing agents, bus drivers. In 1979 women journalists had 36% of the jobs and were paid 67% of what men got. By 1986, they had 46% of the jobs, and their pay had advanced to 76% of men's pay.

These advances are gratifying, but there is no reason why women should not make 100% of what men in similar jobs are getting. Moreover, the progress is far from universal. Most jobs in the skilled blue-collar trades remain closed to women.

The millions of women workers who remain in the traditionally female jobs are making little progress relative to men. Women who are secretaries or tellers or who make clothing in factories continue to receive very low pay, considering the skills they bring to their jobs.

A recent study by the U.S. Census Bureau on the sources of the remaining salary gaps between women and men showed that an important part of the problem was the continuing low pay, relative to qualifications, in female-dominated occupations. The study punctured the myth that women's lower pay was mostly due to work interruptions or to the fact that they had children. The female-to-male earnings ratio generally remained unchanged, even when a woman had no career interruptions. The study thus strengthens the argument for a policy of pay-equity adjustments.

One way of helping women in traditional occupations would be to have the next Secretary of Labor publish a set of national pay equity guidelines.

In the coming campaign, presidential candidates will be asked what their administrations would do about pay equity. The recent developments show improved attitudes towards treating women fairly on the jobs. There should be ample political support for moving forward still further.

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