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July 12, 2001
Women Turning to Courts For Equal Pay
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lawsuit filed recently against Wal-Mart by a group of female employees underlines the growing frustration among women about how much they are paid in comparison to men, the Newhouse News Service reports.

Equal pay for equal work has been an issue since women started flooding the job market in the 1970s. Recent statistics show that large segments of the female work force are still paid far less than male counterparts, according to Newhouse.

Other statistics, however, paint a more complex picture.

The Employment Policy Foundation, a nonprofit research group, reported this spring that the wage gap has disappeared for women between the ages of 25 and 35 who work full-time in the 10 occupations that have seen the largest influx of women in recent years.

Yet in the same fields where women made the most gains, the foundation found that women ages 36 to 44 earned 80 percent of what men did, while women 45 to 54 earned 75 percent.

Annual salary surveys by the AFL-CIO and Working Woman magazine list occupation after occupation in which salary inequities persist.

Women who are accountants, for example, earn on average $33,852 a year, compared with $46,332 for men.

Among lawyers, the averages are $50,648 and $69,680, respectively.

"Let's acknowledge the occupations where women are doing well, but let's not use the jobs where women are making up ground to minimize what's happening in jobs," said Cuc Vu, a senior program specialist with the AFL-CIO Working Women's Department.

The AFL-CIO's analysis of median weekly earnings shows full-time wage and salary earners, female attorneys, architects, psychologists, lab technicians, waitresses and economists are among many workers who make $21 to $323 a week less than men in the same jobs, Newhouse reports.

Skeptics contend that salary averages, especially the general claim that a woman makes 72 cents for every dollar a man earns, are misleading because they lump together women and men of all ages, educational backgrounds, and years on the job.

That's why the Employment Policy Foundation looked at hours worked in the top 10 fields that drew more women in the past 12 years. It found that the older women who were making less than men were working fewer hours.

Other research agrees that younger women earn nearly as much as male colleagues (98 percent for childless women ages 27 to 33, according to the Independent Women's Forum in Arlington, Va.).

Studies also suggest the wage gap affecting older women is rooted in choices to work flexible schedules while raising children in less-demanding jobs that do not match their education and training, or in low-paying, traditionally female-dominated jobs.

But even after taking into account hours worked and experience, 11 to 40 percent of discrepancies are unexplained.

Hence the wage-discrimination lawsuits.

In June, a group of Wal-Mart employees complained in federal court that the giant retailer routinely passes over women for promotions and pays male workers more in the same jobs.

In the past four years, Home Depot has paid $87.5 million to more than 20,000 women who claimed discrimination.

Publix, a Florida supermarket chain, also paid $81.5 million.

Despite such high-profile cases, fear of losing their jobs or being ostracized keeps many women from claiming pay discrimination.

"I've studied discrimination laws all my career," said Barbara Lee, dean of the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations. "I think litigation is always the last choice. We really need a cultural change ... that sees men and women as caregivers and sees men and woman as high-potential professionals."

To view the Newhouse News Service story, click here.

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