Women Are Still Paid The Wages Of Discrimination

Thanks to congressional politics and media glare, an issue that merits serious attention--how women are treated in the workplace--has become the stuff of high drama and base motives. In the spectacle that unfolded over the Columbus Day weekend, accuser and accused had their say. Senators professed moral indignation at either sexism or racism or both. Yet all the Sturm und Drang has obscured some more fundamental issues.

It may be impossible to prove sexual harassment in all but the most egregious of cases, but the facts are clear on other forms of discrimination that do tangible damage. First, women's earnings still trail those of men. Second, family-leave and child care benefits continue to be stingy. Long after the name Anita Hill has faded from memory, these economic issues will remain. They deserve as much discussion and debate as the proper definition of sexual harassment.

Last year, according to recent data from the Census Bureau, women's earnings as a percent of men's earnings for year-round, full-time workers in all occupations was 71%. True, this marked an all-time high and an increase from 68% in 1989 and 60% a decade ago. But the most recent narrowing of the pay gap is no thanks to rising earnings on the part of women. Instead, it can be attributed to three consecutive years of declining men's earnings after adjustment for inflation.

Equally troubling is the fact that large pay differentials continue to exist within job categories as well as across them. On average, women who are service workers or managers earn full-time pay closer to 60% of what men earn in the same occupations. And for women working full time, the prime earning years of age 35-44 are looking anything but: In 1990 they garnered 69% of what their male peers earned.

There's good reason to worry about women's future economic status. For starters, women running family households consistently demonstrate poorer earning power than men. Fully 37% of all female-headed families, according to the Census Dept., have incomes that rank in the bottom fifth of the nation's income distribution.

And while most two-income married couples fare far better, with a median income of $46,777 last year, that figure was lower in real terms than in 1989. One possible reason: the aforementioned erosion in men's earnings. Now, as women juggle work and child care, more of them may choose to cut back hours or opt out of the labor force entirely, and married-couple incomes will shrink still further.

If that happens, what gradual progress has been made in narrowing pay differences could halt or reverse. When people leave or retreat from the workforce for a period of years, it's difficult for them to catch up to their peers once they re-enter. That's understandable, since experience clearly helps determine pay. To force women to make a choice that gives them an economic handicap, though, is not only discriminatory but also bad business: Employers should want to ensure the productivity of employees they have invested in heavily.

At the very least, Congress should muster the votes to override President Bush's expected veto of the Family & Medical Leave Act. Beyond that, employees should keep the pressure on for more child care options. And employers need to take a fresh look at pay scales. Sexual harassment is ugly. But it shouldn't distract us from dealing squarely with economic injustice.