University News

Lecture confronts gender pay inequality

By
Contributing Writer

Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, painted a grim picture of current gender pay inequalities Monday night to a small, female-dominated audience in Petteruti Lounge.

Regardless of age, race, education level, industry and other demographic factors, women earn less than men, Martin said. One year out of college, women earn about 80 percent as much as their male counterparts, and the gap only widens with time. New female doctors earn nearly $17,000 less than new male doctors, a disparity that has risen over the past decade. Even when controlling for all external factors, there is still a significant wage disparity, Martin said.

“In the last 50 years since the Equal Pay Act (of 1963) passed, we’ve made it less than halfway to equality,” Martin said. “The wage gap continues to be, unfortunately, a very important presence in women’s lives.”

The gap persists because of many factors, Martin said. Though discrimination is a significant influence, some policies currently in place contribute to the disparity and could be changed, she said. For example, corporate pay secrecy policies designate the discussion of pay as a punishable, sometimes fireable, offense. Women may therefore not even know they are being discriminated against. Fear of retaliation and lack of legal representation also play a role, Martin said. 

Pay discrimination occurs most frequently when an employee is either offered a raise or a new job, “not the moments where you are wary (of discrimination),” Martin added.

“Pay discrimination is very difficult to see when it’s happening to you,” she said.

To fight this disparity, legislative changes are needed to prevent systemic discrimination against women, she said. Martin added that she has worked to install these changes at the National Women’s Law Center, where she helped develop the Paycheck Fairness Act. 

This act, which failed to get through the Senate by two votes in November 2011, sought to enact small policy changes that could make a significant improvement in the wage gap, Martin said. If passed, it would have worked to prohibit employee retaliation and would have allowed the government to collect better information on pay rates.

Martin also spoke at length about two recent legal battles that varied in success in the fight to narrow the wage gap. 

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first act President Barack Obama signed into law, ensures that a woman’s statute of limitations begins anew each time a woman receives a discriminatory paycheck. Martin used this as an example to show how a small, technical policy change can successfully have a lasting effect on women’s ability to file pay discrimination suits.

She then spoke about the Supreme Court decision in the 2011 WalMart v. Dukes case, which was brought by more than 1.5 million female employees against WalMart. The court rejected the case because the class was “too big to sue,” Martin said. A decision in their favor would have helped the women stand together as a group rather than “go up against Goliath” alone, she said.

Ali Wolfson ’12 said she appreciated the legal perspective Martin provided.

“She did a really great job of showing the different mechanisms for change,” Wolfson said, adding that “understanding what is going on is the first step towards building a movement around it.”

“Legal change … can’t be an entire social movement, but it’s a crucial part of any social movement for justice and equality,” Martin said.