The Woman Behind New York City's Recent Wage Gap Success Reveals What To Focus On Next

"If you want to raise all boats, including the boats of women, it's important that we pay women their worth."

Below is the first edition of A Plus' new series, Mind The Gap: Women, Wages, and The Workplace..We're all familiar with that statistic oft seen in headlines—  on average, women who work full-time earn 80% of what their male peers do — but many professional women and entrepreneurs are still working their way to the top, despite adversity. This series, published over the course of 10 months, or 80% of the year, will dig into the nuances of equality in the workplace — and the brilliant and entrepreneurial ways women are making their mark.

In April, New York City banned employers from asking job applicants about their salary histories, a move intended to level the playing field for women in the workplace. It was one of the first jurisdictions to do so. But the groundbreaking piece of legislation currently being held up as a model for cities around the country would never have been possible without the work of one woman: Letitia James, the city's public advocate.  

"Being underpaid once should not condemn one to a lifetime of inequity." James said in a statement following the bill's passage. "[This bill bans] employers from asking about previous salary information, a practice that is known to perpetuate a cycle of wage discrimination. We will never close the wage gap unless we continue to enact proactive policies that promote economic justice and equity."

James, a longtime supporter of equal rights for New Yorkers, was elected as a member of the city council representing Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, and parts of Bedford Stuyvesant in 2003 and 10 years later was elected to the office of public advocate. She is the first woman of color to hold the prestigious position. 

New Yorkers and state officials applauded the bill as a step in the right direction.



Letitia James

The wage gap is a multi-pronged issue. The first prong, and one that is partially addressed by Letitia James' legislation, is that the wage gap gets worse as women age in the workforce. A study by PayScale, an online compensation data company, collected  from 1.6 million user profiles, and it showed that, at age 22, the average salary for a woman is $31,900. For a man, it's $48,800. Once they reach their late forties, women are only paid $60,000 compared to the $95,000 a man takes in.

But let's look at it from a bird's eye view. Across the country women earn approximately 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man. James told A Plus that the gap is even starker for women of color: the wage gaps for Asian, Black, and Hispanic women are 37 cents, 45 cents and 54 cents respectively to a white man's dollar. The PayScale data also shows salaries are "significantly closer" between men and women who hold the same jobs and that the real disparity is in an opportunity. The study found that "men are 85 percent more likely than women to be VPs or C-Suite Executives by mid-career, and 171 percent more likely to hold those positions late in their career." This means that men make up the super-majority of higher level (and higher paid) jobs.

The gap exacerbated by "the motherhood penalty." Women on average end up earning four percent less for every child born or adopted. The opposite happens for men. Men see their incomes rise 6 percent for every child because employers see fathers as more reliable and stable. To make matters worse, this motherhood penalty hits low-income women the hardest. According to sociology professor Michelle J. Budig, "at the very top of the income distribution for women, there is no significant and costly motherhood penalty. In other words, 'the women who can least afford it, pay the largest proportionate penalty for motherhood.'" 

Women are disproportionately represented in fields like nursing, teaching, service jobs (waitressing), and human resources. And these fields are often thought of as "women's work" and now have their own term: "pink collar jobs."

"In this society, we devalue women and we devalue the jobs that women perform," James told A Plus. "Such as caring for elderly individuals, caring for the sick, caring for children, and women who work in the healthcare industry, service-oriented jobs, where women for the most part take care of other individuals. Human services, and because human services, on averages, pay less than individuals in insurance, and in banking, and on Wall Street, women on average are paid less."

Here is a chart detailing the percentage of women in each field of the top 20 industries where women are the majority from the data from the US Department of Labor:

Katie Ward / A Plus
Katie Ward / A Plus

Even if men and women were paid equally in these female-dominated industries (they aren't), these jobs are valued less than that of jobs traditionally dominated by men.  

Because of the gender pay gap and gender opportunity gap, women fall short with wealth accumulation. Albert Einstein is thought to have said that compound interest is "the most powerful force in the universe." That is because over time, the returns on an initial investment make their own returns if that money is kept in the market or reinvested. 

So basically women aren't only losing money paycheck to paycheck. They are potentially losing millions of dollars in money earned through savings and investment. According to hypothetical accounting by Sallie Krawcheck at Ellevate Network, women who are paid $85,000 and should be making $110,000 have the potential to lose up to $2.1 million dollars in investment returns, depending on market performance, over the course of a career. 

Wouldn't it be nice to have an extra $2.1 million dollars to retire on or to use for your children's education?

All of these factors create what is called the feminization of poverty, where women represent a disproportionately high percentage of the world's poor due to the deprivation of opportunities and wages because of gender bias.  

So how can we overcome this issue? Luckily, we have people like Letitia James fighting with us.

James speaking at a 2008 press conference.
James speaking at a 2008 press conference. By Thomas Good (Thomas Good / Next Left Notes) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

"I am committed to addressing the feminization of poverty, I see too many women living in poverty, and too many children living in poverty, and too many families living in poverty, and part of it is because women are paid less than their male counterparts for basically doing the same job," James told A Plus. "Why is closing the wage gap essential to having a thriving economy and middle class? Because if you want to raise all boats, including the boats of women, it's important that we pay women their worth, and that we pay them the same salary as their male counterparts for... doing the same job."

But James shared with us how we can get started.

"[We need to] recognize the power of protest, the power of resistance, the power to advocate and to communicate and lobby their local elected officials, their state elected officials, and their federal elected officials." James told A Plus. She continued: "I think it's really critically important that we push private companies, particularly private companies that are financed with public dollars, that they be much more transparent, and that they post the salaries of their employees. That would go a long way in assuring… that women are treated the same as men and that we do not continue to pay women less for doing the same job as their male counterparts."

Luckily, according to the data, we are currently on the right path. The gap is closing little by little every year. And every step forward is a step in the right direction.

 James ended our conversation by saying, "I think what is so important, to me, is that this is not a one year problem, not a five year problem, but a lifetime problem... And the bill that has been signed into law, which will ban salary history is just one tool in the tool shed."

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