Mind the Gap

Minority women's earnings lag not only those of men, but also those of other women, according to a study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Authors hope the findings will fuel gender-pay policies that consider race and ethnicity.

"I would say that things had been stagnating over the past years in terms of women overall," said Amy Caiazza, the study's director. "What is new about the report that we find interesting is how much what kind of women you are matters. There are vast differences between race and ethnicity that had not really been covered before."

The earnings ratio between men and women employed year round
and full time in 2002 was 76.2 percent, that is, women earned 76.2 cents for every dollar men earned. When women of color were compared to white men, however, the gap became larger. African American women earn just 63 cents and Hispanic women earn only 53 cents for each dollar that white men earn. Asian American women were the highest paid group of all women and had the narrowest wage gap, 75 cents. The gap for white women was found to be 70 cents.

Wages gaps also exist within minority men and women. For instance, in 1999, white women made an average of $30,900 compared with white men, who made on average $44,200. African American women, again, on average, made $26,600 versus $33,100 earned by African American men.

Caiazza says the study will help to create a clearer picture of differences that exist among categories of women, which will be important for policy makers as they seek to eradicate the root causes of the wage gap.

"We hope that the research will help people make better policies," Caiazza said. "The study clearly says that 'one size does not fit all' and that there are different problems and different levels of problems that have to be taken into consideration. It clearly says that gender is a factor but race is also a factor."

Stubborn Wage Gap

The report confirms a stubborn gender-wage gap more than 40 years after passage of the Equal Pay Act. Women, it finds, in addition to experiencing a wage gap, also are less likely to own a business and work in highly paid jobs, such as those in science or technology, or at top levels of business.

On Tuesday, when the report appeared, news broke that a panel of arbitrators had found that Merrill Lynch and Company, the nation's biggest brokerage firm, discriminated against women who worked as stockbrokers. The panel made the judgment while it awarded $2.2 million to a Merrill Lynch stockbroker. This was the first legal ruling to find that a Wall Street firm had engaged in systematic discrimination.

Women who had worked as brokers at Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney, a unit of Citigroup, filed mass claims of sex discrimination in the late 1990. They contended that the firms continued to favor men and pay them more.

If the gap continues narrowing at the rate it did between 1989 and 2002, women would not achieve wage parity for more than 50 years. This figure was calculated using data from Institute of Women's Policy Research and the Urban Institute.

The data in the report comes from several sources, including the 2000 Census and the 2002 and 2003 Current Population Survey.

Released on Equal Pay Day

The report was released in conjunction with "Equal Pay Day," a national event sponsored by various women's organizations, including the National Committee on Pay Equity, to publicize the goal of ending wage discrimination against women and people of color.

Many women's groups use the report, Women's Economic Status in the States: Wide Disparities by Race, Ethnicity and Region, to spread the word that, even as women make progress, the gap in wages will likely take years to eradicate.

The National Women's Law Center, in a press release, called for stronger enforcement of the Equal Pay Act by enacting provisions of the Paycheck Fairness Act, now incorporated into the omnibus Civil Rights Act of 2004.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would ensure effective remedies for wage discrimination and make it easier to sue on behalf of groups of women.

The Washington advocacy group also urged passage of the Fair Pay Act, which would address the problem of paying lower wages in fields dominated by women and people of color.

"One of the problems that women and people of color face in the work force is that female-dominated and jobs dominated by people of color are undervalued and underpaid," said Deborah Chalfie, senior counsel of the National Women's Law Center. "That is a feature of the labor market that is clearly an impediment to pay equity. We believe that these two legislative measures would be two huge steps in addressing some of the structural factors that contribute to pay inequity as well as addressing them in a procedural area."

Michele Leber has been fighting this battle both personally and as the chair of the National Committee on Pay Equity for more than 20 years. She and other librarians in Fairfax County, Va., sued the county to receive wages in line with other salaries paid by the county.

"My field is predominately female and studies have shown that the higher the percentage of women in a field, the lower the salary," Leber said. The case was dismissed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which said the case did not fall under its jurisdiction.

"We don't expect them to get far in a Republican congress," said Leber, referring to current attempts to pass legislation guaranteeing equal wages, "and even though these bills were introduced years ago, we expect them to take years more to get passed."

Marianne Sullivan is a New York-based freelance writer who writes frequently on economics and finance.

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