Juanita Reed-Boniface was working for the University of Nebraska Extension Service in Otoe when she became pregnant with her first child, back in 1960. She's now in her 70s and retired, living in Minnesota.
"At that time, I must say, there was what I would call job discrimination on the part of women, particularly young mothers," she said. "At the time that I was pregnant with my son, the University of Nebraska had a ruling that you needed to resign 60 days before your delivery date."
Several years later, Reed-Boniface was passed over for a job in favor of a woman her age with similar experience. The only reason given was that Boniface had young children at home; her competitor did not.
"I was angry, very honestly," she recalled. "Because I really believed that I was the best candidate, that I had had the best experience coming into the interview and that I could do the best job."
In 1960, when Reed-Boniface was beginning her career, women accounted for only one-third of the workforce. Many women in her generation were the first in their families to attend college, she says. It took a 1973 class-action lawsuit for Reed-Boniface to get equal pay in Minnesota.
Flash forward to June of 2009, when women reached half the workforce for the first time ever.
Sounds pretty impressive, but according to experts like Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, it really doesn't mean much.
"We've had a tremendous amount of progress. On the other hand," she added with a rueful laugh, "we're still pretty far from equality. We just recently calculated that if women made the same progress in closing the wage gap that they made between 1960 and 2010, we would take 46 more years to close the wage gap."
The gap with men may be closing, that doesn't necessarily mean women have made lasting strides. In the current economic downturn, fields dominated by women, like healthcare and education, simply suffered less than male-dominated fields like construction and manufacturing, Hartmann said.
Chart on the gender wage gap by occupation, courtesy of the Institute for Women's Policy Research
Nationally, only 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs, according to a 2010 report from the White House's National Economic Council. Twice as many men as women earn more than $100,000 a year.
Even in occupations that employ large numbers of women, the wage gap persists. Education was the third most prevalent occupation for women in 2009, according to the Department of Labor, but female elementary, middle and secondary teachers earn ten to fifteen percent less than their male counterparts.
Working women in Nebraska
A decent job market doesn't necessarily matter, either. Despite having the second-lowest unemployment rate in the nation, Nebraska is hardly the best place for working women.
"Out of the fifty states, or the ten states around here, if you look at the number of women employed, Nebraska ranks really high," said Kathie Uhrmacher, chair of the Lincoln Mayor's Commission on Women. "Unfortunately, how much they earn is way less. So we're kind of in the bottom ten of the fifty states when it comes to how much we're earning."
A 2004 report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research ranked Nebraska 35th in terms of women's employment and earnings out of the fifty states and the District of Columbia. That gives the state a D plus. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the state wage gap cost Nebraska working women more than 2 billion dollars in lost wages in 2009.
Click here for a report on the gender wage gap and occupation from the Institute for Women's Policy Research
Click here for the 2010 annual report from the Lincoln Mayor's Commission on Women
"As a result of that, all of us women on staff received a significant wage increase, and our base salary and the formula (that determined wages) was then equated with men," she said.
Cause and effect
Numerous factors contribute to the wage gap, including discrimination, education and the types of jobs women are encouraged to pursue. Additionally, Hartmann said, American labor policies are not very family-friendly.
"I think there are only three countries in the world, the entire world, that don't have paid family leave," she said, "and we are one of them."
Kathy McKillip is a former member of the now-defunded state Commission on the Status of Women. She says taking a few years off to raise children also can have a negative impact on wages. Paired with women's already lower salaries, even in high-paying professions, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle when couples decide if one parent will stay home with a child.
"Frankly, many times the decision is made on which one has the better salary," McKillip said, adding that even women physicians and surgeons "are paid 41 percent less than their male counterparts, women college and university teachers earn an average of 22 to 24 percent less than their male counterparts and women lawyers earn 13 to 15 percent less than their male counterparts. Those are high earners and achievers."
And though the wage gap has narrowed, income disparity still has long-term, lasting effects for women. About one in five single older women live in poverty. Lower wages mean less savings, less money in future social security benefits and lower pensions.
And minority women, who long made up a larger share of the workforce than Caucasian women, lag behind them in terms of wages, education and professional and managerial positions.
But things could be changing. Part two of this series will explore how younger generations could bring about a major shift in economic opportunities for women as they enter the workforce.
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