Despite Massachusetts’ historic leadership on pay equity — in 1945 it became the first state to require equal pay for comparable work — the gap between men’s and women’s salaries here is now among the biggest in the country.
Women earned 77 percent of what men took home in median full-time pay, placing Massachusetts 37th among states and the District of Columbia, according to 2011 US Census Bureau data analyzed by the American Association of University Women.
That puts Massachusetts behind every other New England state, according to the analysis. The disparity exists despite a highly educated female workforce in the Bay State.
“We are a progressive state and we do all these progressive things,” said Ellie Adair, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women. “But we are still victim to the same social and cultural forces as everyone else in the country.”
Women working full time in Massachusetts earned a median annual salary of $46,185 in 2011. That was nearly $10,000 more than the median income for women nationwide, but considerably less than the take-home pay of Massachusetts men whose annual median salary was $60,264,according the census data.
On the campaign trail this fall, equal pay for women became a main issue, providing fodder for commercials by Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren and giving rise to Mitt Romney’s “binders-full-of-women” defense.
Critics charge that much of the wage gap in Massachusetts and nationally owes largely to women’s choices — to become mothers and to work in less remunerative fields, such as nursing or teaching.
In Massachusetts, more women delay motherhood until later in life, meaning that more women delay time off from the workplace as well as transition into jobs with greater flexibility — factors that can imbalance men and women’s pay.
A greater percentage of Massachusetts women, also, earn bachelor’s and graduate degrees than women nationwide, an accomplishment that leads to higher-paid jobs and which long was assumed to be a step on the ladder to commensurate pay with men.
“There was a belief in the 1980s that if you dressed for success, that would work,” said Victoria Budson, chair of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women “In the 1990s education was supposed to be the great equalizer.”
Evidence now shows that higher levels of education can make the pay gap more extreme.
Women with more education who land in professional jobs — like doctoring, lawyering or business — encounter wages that are subject to the choices of managers and thus, potentially, unconscious bias and other factors, said Deborah Thompson Eisenberg, a law professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
“Lower-wage workers tend to work in jobs where the pay scale is fairly defined and there’s no discretion by a boss to increase or decrease it for subjective reasons,” Eisenberg said. “In upper-level jobs, you may see a set salary but more discretionary pay like stock options and bonuses. That’s where you see disparities.”
Thompson said salary discretion also favors men’s negotiating skills, which tend to be more effective than women’s, yielding higher starting salaries for men, who in Massachusetts also hold a high number of professional jobs.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that in 2010, female lawyers earned 77.1 percent of what their male counterparts earned, female physicians and surgeons 71 percent, and female operations managers 71.8 percent. By contrast, female food prep workers made 94.1 percent of what their male peers made and receptionists 96.7. percent.
Specialists also note that at the higher end of the pay scale, wages are rarely hourly or union-negotiated, thus women are less likely to know what male counterparts earn. In turn, they are less likely to know they earn less and less likely to advocate for more pay.
“As you get up into industries that require an MBA or JD, there is less transparency in the process,” said Budson, who is also executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “The less transparency in the process and the less clarity, the larger the pay disparity.”
AnnMarie Duchon credits transparency with helping her win a long-fought but ultimately successful battle for equal pay at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
When she was hired eight years ago to work in disability services at the university, she learned through a published list of salaries that she was being paid a different rate than a male co-worker with similar education and experience. She asked for equal pay and was denied, she said. Continued...