Half of Well-Educated Charleston Women Have Experienced Wage Discrimination

Wage Gap is the term used to describe the difference between men’s and women’s salaries. Study after study has repeatedly shown that even when the variables that influence salary such as education and experience are controlled, the wage gap persists. In South Carolina, women earn 78 cents for every dollar a man makes (American Community Survey 2009 www.census.gov/acs). Women work 16 months to earn what a man makes doing the same job in twelve.

The wage gap is a statistical fact, but we wondered whether local women actually believe that they have been paid less because of their gender. Over 100 women replied to our Center for Women survey. Our survey sample was not scientifically drawn, but it does paint a picture that well-educated, local women have personally experienced pay inequity. The majority of survey respondents had attended college or graduate school and about one-third each were between the ages of 20 to 35, 35 to 50 and over 50.

Out of 106 women, 51% stated that they had been paid less than male colleagues in a similar position even though they could not prove it. When asked to rate their pay inequity situation on a 5-point scale from subtle bias to overt discrimination, the results were spread evenly across the range. About 40% leaned toward describing their situation as subtle bias, 40% leaned toward overt discrimination and 20% were in between.  No less disturbing, 39% believed that they had been skipped over or denied a promotion because they were a woman and 14% held the opinion that they had been let go, fired or severed because of their gender.

When queried as to whether or not they had discussed the situation with their employer, the following verbatim comments characterize their positions, “I’ve spoken to my immediate supervisor, who basically blew me off. I’m afraid to take it higher for fear of losing my job if it appears I’m complaining;” “This is a right to work state and there are too many other people that would take my job and not complain;” “I did [discuss the situation] and have since been treated poorly;” “I could not prove it;” “ I saw [salaries] by accident and didn’t want it to be a problem;” “I need to keep the job, so I keep my mouth shut!” “State budget cuts make it unlikely that the situation could be resolved even if I were to convince them that the pay grade was unfair;” “I don’t want to rock the boat;” “I attempted to discuss and was shot down. Now I’m a trouble maker;” “There was no resolution in my favor. In fact, I was let go;” “Hard to prove and unfavorable outcome feared especially as an African American.”

Why should men care?  

Women’s salaries no longer pay for extras or the nice-to-have of family life. Women’s earnings are essential to supporting families. In married households, women’s income typically accounts for 36% of the total family income and about one-third of employed mothers are the sole breadwinners for the family. (US Senate Joint Economic Committee 2010 Invest in Women, Invest in America: A Comprehensive Review of Women in the US Economy.) Fair pay for women translates to fairness for families and a more economically stable environment for children. I would ask men, “do you believe that your hard-working wife, mother or daughter with equal skills and ability should be paid less than her male peers?” Don’t you want to see her appreciated, paid fairly and not undervalued?

What can be done?

The wage gap is an injustice that deserves attention from the business community and all employers. We should not be afraid to acknowledge its existence and talk about its consequences. When the opportunity presents itself, middle management and executive women should raise the issue within their organizations and press for Human Resource policies and procedures that seek pay equity. Understanding that some pay inequity is due to subtle cultural bias and not in your face gender discrimination, open discussion and dialogue can do much to increase awareness of how widespread the practice really is and how unfair to families it is.

Women on their part can learn to be better salary negotiators. Men are much more likely to negotiate their pay than women. Women are not as comfortable with self-promotion and do not like to be perceived as pushy. Yes, the job market is very tough today and many of us are simply thankful to be working, but fair pay is a goal we should all be working toward.

Ginger Rosenberg is the Marketing Coordinator of the Center for Women. The Center for Women is a local, non-profit organization providing job counseling and job search workshops as well as programs on negotiation skills. Contact the Center for Women at www.c4women.org.     

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