Why We Must 'Lean in' to Workplace Pay Inequity

If we want women 50 years from now to have the pay and opportunities that are rightfully theirs, we must stand up, and stand together.

Have you ever been underpaid because of your gender or race? It's been 50 years since the passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which requires that men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work. The jobs need not be identical, but they must be substantially equal. Job content—not job titles—determines whether jobs are substantially equal. However, statistics show that females are paid only about two-thirds what males receive for the same work and African Americans are consistently paid less than whites for the same work overall on a national scale.

Think about those statistics. Now think about your work experiences. Do it in the style of the movie The Usual Suspects and see if you can spot who Kaiser Soze really was—or rather, see if you can spot the times when you were not receiving equal pay for your work. It's tough to spot because paying employees less based on race or gender is one of the most insidious and well-hidden types of discrimination.

I work in the not-so-glamorous world of broadcast television. When I began my most recent job at WDJT-TV, the CBS-affiliated television station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was promised a different position but ended up on the morning show. That meant getting up at 2 a.m. and heading in to work at 3 a.m. I threw myself into the work and helped the station win its first and only "Best Morning News" award. Beyond that, I did my job and more—learning to become a strong editor and helping to back-up edit our shows, which is not something many anchors in mid-to large markets would do. I believe you can never learn too much. No one can say that the quality of my work—or my work ethic—is lacking.

However, I have reason to suspect there is pay inequity in my workplace and that it has impacted me and several other women and minorities at the station. (For legal reasons, I cannot go into more detail; however my complaint is publicly available.)

Most of us do not know that we're being underpaid because it's likely you do not know your co-workers' salaries. And most businesses would like to keep it that way. Many employers have policies "forbidding" the discussion of salaries even though the National Labor Relations Act ensures employees' rights to discuss and share their compensation with each other for their mutual aid.

I have reason to strongly believe that a male employee hired after me—hired to do a substantially similar job—was being paid more than me. I discovered he was also being paid significantly more than the woman he had most recently co-anchored with. This appears to have been well-known at my station. And pay inequity was not just happening with the "on-air" jobs. Women producers and technical people at my station also had similar stories of pay inequity of at least $5,000 or more per year.

Now, you may say that women are hired last so that's why they make less. In all the situations I am aware of, the women were actually at the station longer. In the case of pay disparity based on race, the minorities were hired later. But can a company that has no seniority system really claim that pay is based on seniority?

So that is why I have filed a claim against my employer with the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They, and possibly the courts, will have to answer that and many other questions.

There were women before me who had these same concerns and for a variety of reasons—financial limitations, fear or retribution, and other fears—they didn’t pursue the issue. Of course, the first question everyone asks is "Are you planning to leave news?" That is the greatest fear and perhaps it is the truth—once you raise a claim you may become persona non grata in your field.

It's not legal for employers to blacklist you, but it happens. And it is one of the things employers count on to keep you from standing up. But I think of those who have come before us. If they did not stand up for themselves, modern women would have no choices and minorities would still be relegated to the literal and metaphorical back of the bus.

As young women, we cannot retreat from this fight. We're being told to "lean in" to the workplace. I say we also need to lean in to wage equality. We cannot continue to accept less pay and opportunities. The issue is not only about pay, either. It's about career advancement, too. In broadcast television news, what you cover can significantly impact the jobs you get in the future. For example, covering last year's Democratic and Republican national presidential conventions is the kind of opportunity that can make a news career. Not one woman at my station was given the chance to cover either convention.

What gives me hope is that since my claim has become public, several other women at my station have come forward with their concerns. We are standing together to fight this injustice. Yet, even though we have legal rights, what good is a legal remedy if you cannot afford the fight? Employers count on the average person being unable to afford litigation. Their tactics often involve dragging out discussions and mediation, all the while knowing the cost will become a burden. I set up a GoFundme page to help raise money for the stand I am taking, but we must change our system so that challenging discriminatory practices doesn’t financially cripple women and minorities.

I took swimming lessons as a kid but was never really comfortable in deep water. This summer I got my orange one-piece and went to the local pool. After learning to tread water and perfecting some strokes, I did something I never thought I would do: I jumped off the high dive. Falling through the air and waiting to hit the water was the hardest part—I'm also a little scared of heights. But once I hit the water, came back up, broke the surface, and swam back to the edge of the pool, I knew that what had held me back all this time was fear. And I had conquered it.

Wage inequity based on gender and race will only end when we collectively conquer our fears—of confrontation and of consequences—and come forward. If we want women 50 years from now to have the pay and opportunities that are rightfully theirs, we must stand up, and stand together.

Want to support Shari's fight for wage equality? Click here to say you'll do it.

Women standing together image via Shutterstock

Julian Meehan

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