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March 5, 2009

GENDER WAGE GAP: Not just a women's issue, keynote speaker explains

Equal pay for equal work is more than simply a women’s issue, said keynote speaker Jocelyn Frye. “Even though we often talk about it in gender terms it’s clearly not just a women’s issue,” she said. “These days it’s much more than a gender issue; it’s really an economic security issue.”

In spite of the fact that the concepts of equal opportunity and fair pay are rooted in the nation’s core principles — seemingly not controversial or radical — discussion of the gender wage gap “often is not a noncontroversial issue,” she said.

Frye, who was the director of the National Partnership for Women and Families workplace fairness program when she was invited last October to address the conference, has since taken a post in the Obama administration. In January Frye was named deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy and director of policy and projects for the first lady.

“You say ‘pay equity’ and people go to their respective sides and fall into the rhetoric of the past” without much conversation on strategies for eliminating the problem, she said, arguing that the subject needs to be tackled creatively without getting caught up in old arguments.

Fair pay is a high economic priority as research increasingly shows it as part of the broader challenge of economic security, Frye said. “Many, many families are looking to women as primary or sole breadwinners” as mounting job losses among men push more and more women into the breadwinner role.

Frye stressed the importance of data in unraveling the complex gender gap problem, citing two examples from her prior work that demonstrate how a macro examination of data doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

She said a closer look at rising Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) retaliation claims revealed that women were driving the numbers up. “It was an important part of the story,” she said. “There was something about the jobs women had or how women were viewed in the job or treated in the job that led to the sizable increase in discrimination claims filed by women.”

Another example sorted EEOC pregnancy discrimination claims by race and ethnicity. “Again we found differences,” she said. Over a 15-year period, such claims rose 65 percent. “What was found was a lot of that increase is driven by claims filed by women of color,” she said.

The reasons for that remain an open question, Frye said, citing as contributors greater numbers of women in the workforce and women working further into their pregnancies, “but none of that really accounted for the sharp rise,” she said. Persistent stereotypes about what pregnant women could and could not do in the workplace also had an impact, Frye concluded.

Such basic stereotypes and assumptions call for higher-profile efforts to combat them, she said.

“For me, examination of the issues always starts with examination of the data,” Frye said. Finding where disparities lie — be it in gender, geography, race, industry or job type — can be crucial pieces of the puzzle.

The reasons that a pay gap exists are complex, she said. Discrimination and educational disparities play roles and must be addressed. Enforcement of the law should be encouraged, but talk about the limits of the law and gaps in what it can do also must be part of the conversation, Frye said.

Better education about job options and better opportunities to prepare women for higher-paying jobs can be part of the solution.

If women continue to work in historically low-paying, traditional fields, a wage gap will persist, Frye said. If women are directed into nontraditional fields, they need to have the training required to find and keep those jobs.

“It’s all part of the puzzle,” she said.

Change doesn’t necessarily come at a national level, Frye said. “It’s often the case that states are leaders in trying to accomplish change at the national level,” she said, noting that some states are looking inward to formulate their own policies and strategies.

Such voluntary introspective practices — whether by states or individual employers — should be rewarded and others should be encouraged to replicate the best strategies.

Frye said it’s critical to begin a comprehensive conversation on the issue. “Pay equity is at the heart of the ability of women to really achieve equality of opportunity,” she said.

— Kimberly K. Barlow

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