Making the Connection Between Gender Bias and Economic Security

March is Women's History Month. This time of year can be quite joyous and reaffirming as a woman, particularly for one who runs a women's foundation. Women's achievements through history should be documented and celebrated, though it does not move us to address the small and large inequities women and girls face now. Wage disparity - in the forms of the gender pay gap, work that is less valued, and diminished statewide efforts to support low-income women, to name a few - is one of the greatest barriers facing women and girls today. Left unattended, we stand to create a very bleak future.

The national statistic is well known: the gender pay gap is roughly 78%, or $.78 to the dollar. This statistic is based on the median women's wage vs. the median men's wage. There have certainly been improvements since the 1970s, but the disparity is real. That reality varies state to state: Washington, DC has the closest median income ratio at $.90; while Louisiana has the greatest disparity, at $.65. Illinois is closer to the national average at $.79. Not surprisingly, that reality also varies along ethnic, racial and age lines. The pay gap is disappointingly wider for women of color. For Latina women, the gap is more like 54%, and for African-American women, it's 65%.; and the pay gap is wider yet as women grow older.

Fortunately, this topic is gaining traction. From the tech industry to the nonprofit sector, more conversations are being had around the existence of the pay gap and how best to address it. It is an issue of substantial public interest and debate. If the challenge was a simple disparity in the pay rate, we would campaign to resolve the matter with government policy, legislation and required compliance. In truth, the issue is much more complex. There are technically laws and policies on the books, but are not being enforced.

So what stands in the way of progress? Gender bias sits at the root of it all. It is something that affects us in our families, on the job, religious institutions, and as we navigate our daily lives. Understanding and addressing the more subtle, indirect factors which contribute to the pernicious disparity in pay have surfaced some compelling revelations.

1. Pay Packages: Even where salary offers are equitable, disparity is hidden in sign on bonuses, annual bonuses, stock plans, expense accounts, stipends, offers of training programs, retirement packages and other benefits.

2. Pay Transparency: 19% of current commercial enterprises prohibit any discussion of pay rates among workers. 31% strongly discourage this communication. Such secrecy only contributes to the atmosphere of mystery and ultimately, inequity. Such secrecy can inhibit the negotiation process.

3. Minimum Wage Factor: Women are 47% of the total workforce, but 56% of women in the workforce would be benefited by increasing the minimum wage to just $10.10.

4. Maternity and Sick Leave: Even when starting positions are compensated equally, exercise of leave benefits has been shown to be detrimental to women's long-term salary potential. As 40% of women seek leave at some time in their careers against 20% of men, this indirectly results in disparity. It is also interesting to note that fewer institutions offer paternity leave and that leave is shorter. This forces women to have to take maternity leave more often, and for a longer period of time.

5. Overtime: Women are the default caretakers and often miss out on overtime hours. That results in men working more overtime hours than women, thus elevating their earning power and median average. Modernizing and standardizing overtime policies would make access to this compensation more equitable.

6. Career Choices: Women are under-represented in the careers with highest hourly wage rates: information services, utilities, mining and logging. By contrast, women comprise significantly more than half the population in the lowest paid career paths: leisure, hospitality, retail and services.

7. Education and Career Choices: In 2013, women earned 57% of all BA degrees awarded, but only 35% of them sought careers in STEM (science/technology/engineering/math). Of those women who did elect careers in these areas, more than half left their positions in mid-career (double the rate of men) citing the negative "macho" work environment and challenging work/life balance issues.

At Chicago Foundation for Women, we recognize that addressing gender bias is a sizeable task, but it is not an insurmountable one. In September 2015, we launched The 100% Project, a partnership-driven effort to end gender bias and increase economic security for women in our region by 2030. If everyone across sectors, faiths, communities, and gender (because we need men and boys, too) addresses gender bias in their own lives and work, we could not only close the pay gap, but also create a safe, healthy, and just environment for all women and girls - something CFW works toward every day.

So how do we get to that 2030 goal? First, have a conversation. This week, we are asking residents to participate in Talk It Out, a citywide conversation series on gender bias. It is one thing for a women's foundation to talk about gender bias, but we recognize that not everyone is having the conversation. We cannot collectively address what we collectively do not know is there, even if it is happening everywhere. These conversations will surface issues and examples of gender bias in daily life. It is our hope that the candid discussions will raise the consciousness of the participants. Though that conversation in and of itself will be valuable, CFW will seek to collect the stories of bias and make them a part of the context and backdrop of The 100% Project.

The challenge is not a new or easy one to address, but in sectors where bias and inequity have been eradicated, productivity has improved and the return on investment has been enormous. Increasing the economic security of women increases the economic progress of us all.