Equal Pay – Now and Then

A few days ago – Tuesday, April 8 – was “Equal Pay Day” – the date that symbolizes how long a woman would have to work (on average) to earn what a man earned the previous calendar year. President Obama commemorated the day by signing two executive orders providing incremental fixes to address continuing pay disparities. The Internet celebrated by renewing the ongoing debate about whether or not there really “is” a pay gap.

The argument goes like this. Obama and others point to the statistic that women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Critics counter that the gap is not nearly so large, that if we control for factors such as hours worked (in a typical week and over a lifetime) and occupational choice, the gap is more like 95.5 cents on the dollar. Proponents of efforts to reduce the pay gap then return the volley. For example, Mathew Yglesias recently wrote about these “controls” arguing that:

  • Even if the gap is smaller, it’s still a gap: “I’d be pretty pissed if someone cut my pay 4.5 percent. And I’d be really pissed if they did it because I’m a man rather than because of something related to my job performance.”
  • Women work shorter hours because of societal expectations regarding their role in the home: “It’s not as if women are working shorter hours because they’re loafing around. Men have more leisure time than women.”
  • Women’s career choices are often shaped by societal expectations and trends: “Are women simply en masse failing to notice the wage structure of the American labor market? Or are they being pushed out of more remunerative fields by discrimination? Are they being discouraged from even considering these careers?”

These debates are far from new, of course. The AAUW points out that some efforts to institute pay equality began 120 years ago (yes, in 1894). One woman of that era said, “when I was doing office work, I received $6 a week and kept the books and was a [typist] too. If a man had been employed for this work, his pay would have been $15 a week.”

The only major move toward gender equality in pay occurred in 1963, when John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act (which he called a “first step” and noted that “much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity.”). At that point, women earned 59 cents to the dollar. Now we’re up to 77 cents. Progress? Yes. Enough for 50 plus years? Not to my mind.

So I thought I’d check in with my women’s editors in those days from the 1960s and 1970s. Their insights were revealing.

Marj Paxson noted in her oral history that she received pay equal to men only twice in her career. In her days working at wire services during WWII and just after the war, union contracts kept her pay on a par with the men around her. In her final jobs as a newspaper publisher, she again gained parity with the boys. In between, not so much. She could look around the newsroom and see men with less experience (and probably less talent) earning more than she did:

The women staffers were below the men the whole time … We were always saying that the women’s editors should get equal pay with the sports editors. And that fell on deaf ears. You know, there are ways that you find out how you get paid. People do compare their salaries.

But wait, the critics say! Comparing women’s editors to sports editors is comparing apples to oranges! These aren’t the same jobs – the pay shouldn’t be equal!

Indeed, I reply. And these differences in remuneration for “sports” and “women’s issues” reflect skewed societal values, just as we see today in differential pay scales for occupations typically occupied by men and women.

Even among those holding the same jobs in the newsroom, there were problems. Dorothy Jurney describes the situation at the Detroit Free Press:

The women were not paid as much as the men were in the newsroom. And Kurt Luedtke was the executive editor at the Free Press at that time. When I brought up the fact that a couple of the women said that they were not getting equal pay, he wouldn’t believe it. He just – he knew they had been hired at the same level as the men had been … So he looked it up and found that the women had not progressed in the salary while the men had. And he saw to it that the women were brought up.

But wait, the critics say! This is an example of the Equal Pay Act working! There was a discrepancy and it was fixed.

Indeed, I reply. And bravo to Kurt Luedtke. But it took Dorothy bringing it to his attention. His incredulous reaction suggests to me that at newsrooms across the country, this was a problem that was not being fixed.

Finally, there is the issue of opportunities for promotion. Dorothy Jurney reports that she never fought for managing editor positions because “I’m not that much of a fighter and since it appeared that I would lose any concerted battle to get further ahead, I simply withdrew.” Similarly, my mother considered applying for a managing editor position and was encouraged by other women on staff. Late in life she recalled:

I considered going for the managing editor job. I possibly could have gotten it. Maybe not. I don’t know. I think people would have been not very bright to give it to me … I remember thinking I can’t be a married woman and a mother and do that too.

But wait, the critics say! Dorothy and Margaret made choices. They had paths for advancement and decided to stay where they were.

Indeed, I reply. And I know Mom, at least, was happy with her decisions. But the notion of “choice” ignores the fact that these choices are largely shaped by engrained gender norms and societal structures that limit agency in many ways.

Are things much different now?

The pay gap is smaller – and that’s a good thing. But it still exists. As do societal attitudes that place differential value on work typically performed by men and women. As do socialization and educational practices that influence choices about career and family. As do workplace policies and structures that make it difficult for both women AND men to make those choices.

So there is still lots of work on legislative, educational, organizational, and social fronts. I’d like to hope that someday we’ll be “celebrating” Equal Pay Day earlier in the year – or not at all. It’s one holiday I could easily do without.

Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archies of primary source material are invaluable. 


  1. It’s unbelievable….I taught about this issue over 20 years ago. Not much progress, which is very disappointing.

  2. Maybe men are better at negotiating their salaries. Saying women aren’t getting equal pay in this country is just a pity party, like saying our country is racist when it’s not. Throw as much legislation as you want at it, it’s not going to change. I’ve worked in a few industries that are male dominated and have been treated as an equal. I think this is all silly.

    1. Yes, there are differences in negotiation style that can make a difference. And I’ve been treated very fairly in the workplace, by and large. There are a few possible legislative fixes, but that’s definitely not the only issue. At the individual level, it’s easy to say that women make choices about their careers and they live with those choices. But the choices are shaped by structures, policies, and attitudes that lead to systemic inequality. I don’t think those issues are either silly or a pity party.

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