Experts agree that gender-based wage gap persists

Government and private-sector experts participating in a public forum held by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) advised that gender-based wage discrimination is still a problem and a percentage of the wage discrepancy cannot be explained by nondiscriminatory factors. The forum was held at the EEOC’s headquarters on April 28, 2011 – just one of 24 such events that the federal agency is sponsoring across the country during April and May in an effort to raise awareness of the problem of wage discrimination and to educate the public.

The EEOC is a key member of the National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force, which was launched by President Obama to “improve compliance, public education, and enforcement of equal pay laws.” The headquarters event featured leaders from other Task Force members, including the Departments of Justice and Labor, and the Office of Personnel Management.

In addition to EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien, several government experts presented their agencies’ particular perspectives on the issue of wage discrimination. Several private-sector experts also participated in the forum.

Sara Manzano-Diaz, Director of the Women’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, said that from its inception, the Women’s Bureau had as one of its main purposes the equalization of wages between women and men. Office of Federal Contract Compliance Director Patricia Shiu urged that closing the wage gap is not just a civil rights issue, but an American recovery issue. All the participating government leaders stressed the value of the interagency cooperation that has resulted from the national Task Force.

Katherine M. Kimpel, a partner in the law firm Sanford Wittels & Heisler, stated that if women think they are being paid equitably in their jobs, unless they have looked at the relevant data, the likelihood is that they are not. Many times, she said, women had come to consult her about other discrimination issues, insisting that pay was not a problem, only to find out later that they were being underpaid.

Serena Fong of Catalyst, a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in business, advised that there is a gender leadership gap as well as a pay gap. Over 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies have male CEOs, she observed. The salary studies conducted by Catalyst show that women at these companies start off with salaries $4,600 less than men, even accounting for differences in education and experience.

AFL-CIO Legislative Representative Cecelie Counts stressed that it’s important not to forget the lowest wage earners, such as day care workers, cleaners, and aides, for whom the wage gap has an even more pronounced impact. According to Lisa Maatz, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations of the American Association for University Women (AAUW), one way to try to combat the wage gap is through legislation. Although Paycheck Fairness Act failed to pass during the last Congress, Maatz noted that the bill has been reintroduced in the Senate and House.

“We have come a long way since the days when gender-based inequities in access to jobs and payment of wages were sanctioned by law, but studies show that a significant portion of the wage disparity cannot be explained by differences in experience, specific work performed, education or other nondiscriminatory factors,” said Chair Berrien. “This persistent disparity is a stark reminder that the EEOC’s work to end every form of sex discrimination in the workplace – including compensation discrimination – is still unfinished business.”