Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Second-Class Women
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More women than men are graduating from college these days, generally with better grades. And more women are earning advanced degrees and more going into professional occupations. Yet, as two new studies point out, women in the professions are still paid much less than their male counterparts.

It's clear evidence that, despite years of attempts to win true equality for women, even those at the higher economic levels -- one-fourth of all working women -- continue to suffer from blatant discrimination.

The studies, by the AFL-CIO and the American Association of University Women, show that within a year after graduating, women are earning an average of 20 percent less than men holding the same jobs in education, law, medicine, science and other professional fields. Those out of school for 10 years or more are getting at least 30 percent less.

Whatever the occupation, no matter how well-prepared the women, no matter whether they outnumber or out perform their male co-workers, no matter how creative, talented or hard-working they may be, it's the same: Their median pay is sure to be anywhere from $16,000 to $34,000 a year less than that of men holding the same positions.

That amounts to about 40 percent less for female physicians and surgeons, for example, 30 percent less for lawyers, 25 percent less for college and university teachers.

You might think women would at least get more than men in the traditionally female occupations that they dominate. But though more than 80 percent of pre-school, kindergarten, elementary and middle school teachers and registered nurses are women, for instance, they are paid about 10 percent less than men who work beside them at identical tasks.

Since retirement benefits are based on earnings, the women's employer-financed pensions, Social Security payments and other retirement earnings also are invariably below those of the men. Only about two-thirds of professional women get any pension at all, and the median amount for those who do is barely $6,500 a year. Almost half of professional men get retirement benefits, with a median yearly payment of $12,000.

Despite the second-class treatment they face, increasing numbers of women are expected to enter college to prepare for professional jobs, which increasing numbers of them will fill. It's predicted that there'll be at least 20 percent more female professionals by 2014. And that means that more than half of those who hold some of the nation's most important jobs will continue to be victimized by discrimination.

Professionals aren't the only ones, of course. Most other working women are treated much the same, whatever their jobs. Despite the 44-year-old Equal Pay Act, which promises women "equal pay for equal work," their pay overall stands at 23 percent less than that of men -- currently 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Adequately enforcing the law would help. But more than that, the narrow legal definition of "equal work" must be expanded, for all working women, professional and non-professional alike.

Women claiming wage discrimination generally have had to prove they held the same positions as men whose pay was higher. But though a woman's job may be different, that does not necessarily make her work any less valuable to her employer and society at large than that of a man holding a different job.

What should count is not a worker's gender or what job she holds. Pay for women and men alike should be based on such things as how much training the worker has had, how much education and experience, what skills, how much effort the job requires, what responsibilities it entails, how much stress, as well as how valuable it is to the employer.

The standard should not be "equal pay for equal work," but the much fairer and sensible, "Equal pay for work of equal value."

Bills to make that standard the law have long been pending in Congress. How many more studies must there be before they're finally passed? How much more mistreatment of working women?

Copyright (c) 2007 Dick Meister