By Jennifer Morris
Valerie Biladeau, '98, wanted it all: a fast-moving career track, an executive spot within her company and a happy family. She found herself facing the struggle of balancing a blossoming career and children. In her case, the latter won out. Biladeau made the decision to take time off and start a family, despite the adverse affects on her earning potential.
"Whatever takes away from the continuity of a career path affects pay scale," Biladeau says. "Women are generally responsible for families, and it's hard to maintain a growth pattern in your career if you're taking care of kids."
Biladeau now serves as director of human relations for Olympic Foods, in Spokane. She is happy with the choice she made, though she knows it's a tough one for many women.
"Some people can do it, and some people can't," Biladeau says. "Either way, the choice affects your career."
In 2005, more than 2.2 million women had successfully made their way into the working world, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But the obligations of a family continued to cut back earning potential, creating a proverbial glass ceiling that has long evaded solution. Women earned 81 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2005. Women's 2004 median annual earnings were just over $31,000, while men's median was about $9,000 more.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported 5.7 million men earned more than $100,000 a year. In contrast, only 1.3 million women earned six figures.
Starting a Family
Once a working woman starts a family, the relationship between her and her employer changes, says Jennifer Seyler, '89, a recruiting-compliance consultant for Washington Mutual Bank, in Seattle. Women diminish their ability to earn more and be promoted when they take time off to stay home.
"If nothing else, there is an unconscious sense of the woman not having the same level of commitment and availability," Seyler says. "When a woman calls in sick because of her kids, managers just say 'Oh, here we go.'
Pay gaps have become most prevalent in management positions, and are most noticeable in production-oriented careers, Seyler says. Time off often results in dulled skills and the loss of contacts and accounts. For this reason, some women attempt to work part time in consulting roles during or after pregnancy just to stay active in the workplace.
Starting a family may seem the largest obstacle in a woman's earning potential. But career choice, tenure, experience and education all have to be factored, in as well. In some cases, women are simply less vocal than men; hence, they miss out on opportunities, Seyler says. Women negotiate much less than men do during initial salary determinations. Men sometimes are more willing to gamble in those situations, and the gambling often pays off with a bigger paycheck. Men also tend to be drawn to commission-paid positions, which are not usually characterized by great work environments, Seyler says. Women instead tend to look for positions in which they feel comfortable, even though they may not earn as much.
"Usually, salary figures into the top three reasons why people stay in or leave a company. You also have management and benefits," Seyler says. "If two of those three reasons are in good shape, then an employee will tend to stay loyal. Even if a woman's salary isn't what she wants it to be, there are two other factors that may keep her happy in that job."
Women Moving into the Workplace
An increase in women in management positions will not necessarily create a more female-friendly environment, Biladeau says. Women may be unsympathetic toward those who need time off to be with their kids. Biladeau says she herself sometimes has little patience because she was able to find alternatives and get to work while raising her children.
An increase in the number of women in management also may devalue a profession, according to 2000 research by Radford University's Hilary Lips. Occupations associated with women are rated as less prestigious and less deserving of high pay than occupations associated with men. Women's work is perceived as less important than roles generally attributed to men, causing pay inequity. Women who work 41 to 44 hours per week earn 84 percent of what men working similar hours earn, while women working more than 60 hours per week earn only 78 percent of what men in the same time category earn, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2000.
Women's progress in the workplace is also tainted by discrimination, says Whitworth emeritus professor Patricia MacDonald. She struggled alongside other women faculty to create financial equity at Whitworth because of prevailing attitudes: Men were seen as breadwinners who needed more pay than women who did not head households, even though women and men were doing the same jobs.
Many pay and promotion scales are still designed so that women have more difficulty moving up from low-level positions.
"Greater opportunities for equity are in the traditionally female fields, like nursing and education," MacDonald says. "In corporate management, Congress, science, there are very few women."
Identifying and Solving the Problem
Given the number of women who are single parents, pay inequity can create significant family problems, MacDonald says. Women, regardless of whether they are married, most often have to hire daycare workers while they are at work. The problem is circular, MacDonald says, and results in a lack of full contribution of women to the economy.
Women who suspect they are paid unequally can depend not only on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines, but on state and federal laws, as well. Women can approach their human-relations representatives and work their way through the chain of command. If the complaint is legitimate, the EEOC will be the ultimate step.
"Don't just sit back and accept it," MacDonald says. "A woman needs to protect herself as much as possible. Know the system and use the system to change the system."
Determining the risks a person is willing to take in the daily workplace in order to make a formal complaint must also be considered, however. Many women who are aware of their unequal pay don't want to take action for fear they'll lose their jobs, MacDonald says.
"It's difficult to be a risk taker when you have a child depending on you," MacDonald says. "But a woman can build a support system that will protect her from negative consequences."
Legislation and Change
Legislation is one tool that aims to decrease those negative consequences and increase awareness on behalf of pay inequality.
"Rattling the cage of the legislature is one way to do it," MacDonald says. "I don't think the solutions are going to come after attitudes change. Legislation is needed."
Legislation is useful because it sets a tone for a national tolerance level, but it often results in less cultural movement, Seyler warned. Increased legislation for fair pay, while important, makes equality a requirement and runs the risk that companies only comply because they are forced to, not because it is right. Bosses may be motivated by the fear of being sued, not by the desire to offer compensation because their employees have justly earned it.
What society needs is a change in values, Lips wrote. Too few employers view family concerns and the care of children as important. The most important step to closing the wage gap is for society to give up the notion that a woman must make it in a man's world, and instead acknowledge the gender non-neutrality of the current workplace rules, she wrote. By being more accommodating to the needs of families, employers can create higher standards of equity and fairness despite an employee's gender.
Most large companies now hire within salary targets or market median ranges so that a person is clearly paid according to experience and at a similar level to those in his or her same position, Seyler says. Those doing recruiting and hiring tend to be overly sensitive to pay equality, and sometimes they swing the opposite direction to ensure the fair compensation of women and minorities.
"I don't know that it will entirely go away," Seyler says. "But if equal work is not garnering equal pay, at least there are now steps set up to remedy the situation."