To be paid less is to be valued less. On April 12, 2011, women around the country honor “Equal Pay Day.” Women are still paid less than men for the same positions and with the same skills, and unfortunately there are a number of people that would argue this to be a fact of life. I was recently caught up in a discussion about employment for women, and their lesser pay, with a male supervisor of mine when he proclaimed, “Well, what about maternity leave? Women can’t expect to take a year off of work and be surprised that men on the job have been promoted.” This statement, and its archaic semblance of logic not only left me confused, but also gave me a glimpse into the world of the 1950’s and a struggle that, in this post second-wave feminist era I thought to be left in the past. It enraged me to think that his statement might match the logic of a number of Americans, and that perhaps that is why the issue of fair pay between the genders has been pushed to the wayside time and time again...and then there was Betty Dukes.
On Tuesday, March 28th, the Supreme Court heard the opening arguments for the landmark case of Dukes v. Walmart the largest class action suit in history. It was originally filed as a sex discrimination claim by Betty Dukes, a Walmart greeter. According to Dukes, she became a part time cashier at Walmart for $5.00/hour in hopes that with hard work and determination she could one day be promoted to a salaried management position. However, during six long years of the hard work and determination that she was certain would lead to her success, she was continually denied training that would enable promotion to a higher paying position. There were a number of other women in a similar situation. They were perpetually passed up for promotion opportunities and spent much longer in lower paying positions than their male counterparts. There are currently six plaintiffs in the case claiming that Walmart has an unspoken gender bias that keeps women of the same qualifications and skills in the same position longer than men. In other words, men are promoted at a much faster rate than women, and they have more opportunities for promotion.
I attended the reception honoring the plaintiffs the night before the opening arguments were heard. Each plaintiff offered an emotional thank you for the support they had received. Some of their children were there, one called her daughter to the center of the room, a promising 18 year old girl that was so inspired by her mother’s struggle that she has decided to pursue a Woman’s Studies major at her University. Ten years of struggle against one of America’s most powerful companies has taken a toll on these women, their lives have become wrapped up in the landmark case that could forever change the way women are paid. It was an emotional moment and a powerful example of how the struggle for equal pay for women is far from over.
Since 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed with the provision that no employer can legally discriminate based on race or gender, there have been giant steps taken toward gender equality. Women are a powerful presence in the workforce and the number of broken glass ceilings are too numerous to count. But women, on average, are STILL paid 77 cents to the dollar. Black women receive 69 cents to the dollar, and Hispanic women 58 cents to the dollar. Women must take a stand against this unjust reality. It is not just about the dollar amount on a paycheck, it is how we value women, and it must be corrected.