Why Women Can't Be Paid Like Men: Blame It on Rosie the Riveter

Certainly, change has been unmistakable. We have women on the Supreme Court, female Presidential candidates, women CEOs in the Fortune 500 -- well, all 21 of them, anyway -- and a rising generation of female tech wizards. Since 2010, women have outpaced men in graduating from college and even earned more doctoral degrees.

Never mind studies that show women face stiffer wage penalties than men when mounting costs force students to drop out of college to look for work. That means women opt to stay in school even as loan and interest payments balloon, making crippling student debt a particular woman's issue. Still, all those degrees have been a nifty woman's first.

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It gets complicated
The problem is that the pace of change remains glacial. Women continue to earn less than men in all ten fields monitored by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of July 2015, including management, professional, service and farming sectors.

Admittedly, little about this issue is easy. Many entwined threads weave the complicated tapestry of women's entrance into business and executive suites, including the demands of family and childcare, deep-rooted social conventions, women's comfort levels and sense of identity, male legislative and economic power and all the other stuff.

But when you pull the root thread of that tapestry, the real culprit for the never-ending gender pay gap turns out to be labor policies established during World War II, which unintentionally sanctioned treating women as second-class citizens. Over time, women's lower status became entrenched and institutionalized.

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Unintentional consequences of WWII

It began with a federal directive designed to do just the opposite. The National War Labor Board, made up of representatives from labor, government and management, was formed in January 1942 to smooth any industry problems that might slow war production. Women were streaming onto factory floors to replace men who had been called up to serve.

By the mid-1940s, the workforce consisted of 45% women, up from 24% in the century's early years. Images of patriotic "We Can Do It" Rosie the Riveter flooded wartime culture, but those women earned only about 60% of what men did for the same jobs. In response, and bowing to union concerns that paying women lower wages would permanently undercut salaries for returning men, in November 1942, the NWLB came up with a mandate that reverberates to this day: "Equal pay for equal work" for women workers who replaced men.

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Cue "Equal Pay for Equal Work"
However, then came the kicker of a caveat. Presumably playing to the tenor of the times and trying to be equitable, the Board stipulated an exception:

"Where the plant management, in order to meet the necessity of replacing men by women, has rearranged or lightened the job, perhaps with the employment of helpers to do heavy lifting or the like, a study of job content and job evaluation should afford the basis for setting 'proportionate rates for proportionate work.'"

Such "evaluations" were left to employer discretion. So, from the get-go, employers had an unregulated loophole they could drive a truck through -- one that allowed them to create lower-paying and de facto "female tracks." Over time, that loophole solidified into institutionalized justification for women's unequal pay.

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Debut the "female track"
After the war, federal and civilian policies permitted employers to fire women to ensure that returning veterans had jobs to support their families. With that dispensation, many companies reinstated prewar policies and refused to hire women, whether out of flag-waving, discomfort or both. Companies that continued to hire women just reclassified jobs, dropped the pay permanently and never looked back.

Two decades after Rosie the Riveter flexed her muscles, women accounted for 37% of the workforce and still earned only 59 cents to every male dollar. By then, "proportionate" terminology had segued into "comparable pay for comparable work" -- and that's been the slippery slope down which equal pay has slid ever since.

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What exactly is "comparable work"?
No one seems to know. Later legislation moved in the right direction but passed only as compromise measures. That includes the 1963 Equal Pay Act (actually only an amendment to another labor bill because the business community protested supposed new costs, like women's restrooms) and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned sex discrimination.

Since women's large-scale entry into the workforce in the 1940s, and after 75 years of progress, only 21 more cents, on average, has been added to that "comparable pay" for women, or 80 cents to the male dollar, for white women. Not so much for women of color. In fact, we seem to have hit the wall: That ceiling has been in place since the 1990s.

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Establishing girl ghetto industries
One of the most popular explanations for the pay gap, put forward by opponents every time they vote down the Paycheck Fairness Act, is that women simply work in lower-paying fields, such as social work and education.

But Harvard labor economist Claudia Goldin has found that female financial specialists earn 66% of what male counterparts do. For female doctors, it's 71%, and notches up to 82% for female lawyers and judges. The gender pay gap is hardly a chimera of women's "softer" work.

Over time, whenever a field becomes female-dominated, say nursing or teaching or that social work example, salary levels typically drop. That industry turns into a "girl ghetto," like the World War II "female" jobs.

At that point, it's not only women who are being shortchanged. "A persistent wage gap not only cheats women and their families out of the earnings they deserve, but artificially constrains the purchasing power of women, and therefore hampers the American economy as a whole," reports a recent Congressional report overseen by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), called "Invest in Women, Invest in America."

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Do we really want our daughters to be paid like Rosie the Riveter?