Evelyn Murphy on Equal Pay in Massachusetts

October 17, 2016

Evelyn Murphy is President and founder of The WAGE Project, Inc, a national grassroots organization dedicated to closing the gender wage gap. She is a Ph. D. economist, former Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, and author of Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men and What to Do About It.

I first became aware of the gap between women’s and men’s earnings right after graduating from college. That summer, I was told that the young man working with me was paid more because he had “management potential.” Our boss didn’t comment on my potential. This was a time when bosses just assumed young women would marry and stay home to raise a family. At that time, women earned 59 cents for every dollar men earned.

Throughout the 1960s, I was reassured that the gap was really just about the fact that women were not as well educated and had not worked as long as men.  “Don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time ‘til you girls catch up,” was a common refrain.

Fast forward several decades. Women were graduating from college at the same, then higher, rates than men. Growing numbers were single heads of households. Women were working almost as many hours as men. Yet, the gender wage gap had shrunk only a dime or so.

New rationales became fashionable—occupational segregation, meaning, women were stuck in occupations like secretaries and bookkeepers; and occupational choice, meaning, women tended to choose low paying professions like teaching and nursing while men chose to be astrophysicists! But that dime of progress was explained as much by men’s earnings stagnating due to America’s loss manufacturing jobs going offshore as by women’s earnings advancing.

Fast forward to today. The gender wage gap is commonly pegged at between 20-22 cents, depending on which federal data source used—another dime of progress.  Over 50+ years, I’ve seen the wage gap cut in half.  To my mind, that’s unconscionably slow progress. The lessons from living a work life with a significant gender wage gap are threefold: 1) there is nothing inevitable about its disappearance; 2) while pieces of federal or state legislation can erase the gap, legislation can eliminate elements of discrimination as we get wiser about lingering unfair biases; and 3) women workers (along with sympathetic men workers) have to act and businesses have to act, too.

Incremental advances through legislation

Think about wage gap legislation. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was intended to eliminate the gender wage gap. It prohibits “discrimination on account of sex in the payment of wages by employers.”  Recognizing that this federal legislation was not sufficient, many states including Massachusetts passed ‘comparable worth’ legislation in subsequent decades. Just this year, acknowledging that the existing foundation of federal and state legislation was insufficient, Massachusetts passed landmark legislation to eliminate an aspect of discrimination never before prohibited. This new law prevents employers from asking for previous salary history in hiring interviews.

When an employer uses salary history as a determinant in the salary offer, women who have dropped out of work to take care of their families are penalized. So, too, are women who have been working for another employer for less than their market worth. When the law takes effect in 2018, employers have no specific salary information from candidates prior to making a salary offer.  Instead, they will be making a salary offer that reflects the skills, experience and qualifications of the candidate to do the job they are filling.  

A large, broad-based coalition was successful in securing passage of this legislation unanimously in both legislative houses and signed by the Governor. That coalition included the major business organizations as well as women’s rights advocates. That is to say, business supported this prohibition of inquiries of salary histories in hiring. Employers in Massachusetts have set the national precedent—in eliminating this aspect of gender discrimination that has contributed to the wage gap for decades.

Action by Women and Employers.

Yet, much remains to be done. The gender wage gap will only be eliminated when working women and sympathetic working men act to ensure that women are paid fairly and employers act to eliminate any gender pay inequities that may exist under their roofs. That is why it is critical that every working woman understand how to negotiate to get paid her worth in the marketplace and act on her own behalf (and that of her family, as well).

Here, too, Massachusetts is leading the way. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has committed to providing free salary negotiation workshops to 85,000 working women in Boston over five years. Treasurer Goldberg is taking this same salary negotiation workshop to people throughout the state. This scale of enabling women to seek fair pay is unprecedented in American history, and unequalled anywhere in the country today.

Employers, too, must ensure that they are treating and paying women fairly, first by seeing if in fact they have salary discrepancies, and if so, take steps to correct these inequities. Treasurer Deb Goldberg has posted a first-in-the-nation public tool kit on the State Treasurer’s website to assist employers in examining and taking action to achieve pay parity under their roofs. Over 165 employers in Boston have signed the Mayor’s 100% Talent Compact, pledging to examine their wage gap, take action, and provide salary data so that Boston can report on the progress in reducing the pay gap over time. Here, too, we have led the nation as President Obama fashioned a national compact on Boston’s with 25 major national employers pledged to taking action.

We are living in a time in which employers recognize the need to eliminate pay inequities in order to attract and retain women workers. Business studies have shown this to be good for the bottom line as well as the right thing to do. I am optimistic that the gender wage gap will drop dramatically in the next 5 years.  I am particularly proud of the public leadership that Massachusetts is taking to achieve this essential element in women’s equality.