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On the Clearance Rack: The Value of a Working Woman

It’s important to remember that we still have much work to do when it comes to equal pay for women and miniorities.Several national and state policies would aid in helping achieve pay equity: paid family leave, increased minimum wage, and high-quality child care for parents of all income levels, among others. On a more cultural level, the value of occupations should rely on both market-based value and social justice value.

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With about 60 percent of U.S. women in the workforce today, women are increasingly sharing the financial load of caring for their families. But in nearly every line of work, in both the private and public sectors, women face a pay gap — and the gap is worse for mothers and women of color.

The proof is in the numbers. Nationwide, women make 78 percent of what men earn for the same work. In Texas, the gender pay gap overall is at 79 percent. The numbers are even more disparate for African American and Hispanic women who work full time. They are paid 64 and 55 cents, respectively, for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts, according to the National Women’s Law Center.  

On this Labor Day, it’s important to remember that we still have much work to do when it comes to equal pay. For instance, several national and state policies would aid in helping achieve pay equity: paid family leave, increased minimum wage, and high-quality child care for parents of all income levels, among others.

On a more cultural level, the value of occupations should rely on both market-based value and social justice value.

One major cause of a persistent wage gap in both the public and private sectors is something called occupational segregation, in which average earnings are affected by the percentage of female workers; the more female workers there are, the lower average earnings tend to be.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013 men out-earned women in 138 of the 141 occupations that have comparable numbers of male and female workers. In fact, men get paid more in male-oriented jobs that require less skill and less experience then women earn in female-oriented jobs that require more skill and more experience.

Rather than following the traditional male-oriented model of letting the market (human capital, educational attainment, labor supply) dictate the worth of a job, it should also be inclusive of benefits to society.

A strategy known as “comparable worth” is gaining steam in lessening occupational segregation. Comparable worth involves evaluating jobs and their pay levels to test whether female-oriented jobs earn less than male-oriented jobs that are comparable in skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.

The need to integrate male-oriented and female-oriented occupations should be a target of any state and federal policy efforts to decrease the gender pay gap.

We should also push for more companies to offer paid family leave at a minimum of 20 weeks and allow for scheduling flexibility such that all leave is not required to be contiguous, but within a year. This policy is becoming more popular with companies such as Netflix and Microsoft.

The U.S. is the only developed country without paid maternity benefits, and more companies need to follow the lead of Microsoft and Netflix.

Companies should adopt policies that allow for pay transparency. According to the Institute for Women and Policy Research, nearly half of workers are bound by contract or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with colleagues. This lack of transparency makes it difficult to know whether an individual is paid fairly, and it undermines the wage gap. Greater pay transparency along with better enforcement of Equal Employment Opportunity policies would ensure that working women are paid fairly.

But perhaps most importantly, companies ought to create a culture in which gender norms do not dictate wages. Many supporters of pay equity put the onus on women to close the wage gap. They say that one of the main reasons that the wage gap exists is because women do not negotiate their own salaries. The reality is that many women are good negotiators, but when they do negotiate salaries, they are perceived as self-promoting and assertive.

These two qualities, when portrayed by women, can create a negative reaction against women whose behavior violates gender norms. The need for women to learn to negotiate is not the issue. It’s the perceived backlash from employers and colleagues that needs to change when women do negotiate.

Now is the time to rewrite the story for women and minorities in the workforce. America’s labor force would be better off overall.

Shetal Vohra-Gupta is the associate director of the Institute of Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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