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Equal work, unequal pay

Rasheeda Bhagat

A RECENT survey in China once again reiterates a global phenomenon: Women earn much less than men, for doing the same work. It showed that in the last 10 years the income gap between Chinese men and women has widened by 7.4 per cent in the urban areas and 19.4 per cent in the rural areas. The survey — with a sample size of 48,192 across 30 provinces — proved that women continue to work in lower paying jobs though their income levels have risen over the years.

Even in white-collar jobs, the survey found a gender disparity in the pay levels. For instance, women executives are paid 59.9 per cent of the salary their male colleagues get and senior professionals earn only 68.3 per cent.

Moving from the east to the west, from China to the US, the story is equally gloomy. Surveys by AFL-CIO, the American federation of labour unions representing 13 million America's working men and women, has constantly found wage disparity between men and women, equally qualified or skilled and doing the same job. One of its surveys found that in 1999 women were paid on an average 72 cents for every dollar the men received. "Equal pay has been the law since 1963. But today, 38 years later, women are still paid less than men — even when we have similar education, skills and experience," says a report on its website (www.aflcio.org).

"In 1999, women were paid 72 cents for every dollar men received. That's $28 less to spend on groceries, housing, child care and other expenses for every $100 worth of work we do. Nationwide, working families lose $200 billion of income annually to the wage gap. It's not like we get charged less for rent or food or utilities," says a report.

It goes on to argue that over the working span of a woman's life this shortfall adds up to a whopping $523,000! "And because we're paid less now, we have less to save for our futures and we'll earn smaller pensions than men. Half of all older women receiving a private pension in 1998 got less than $3,486 per year, compared with $7,020 per year for older men."

This is serious and hampers a woman's economic power. Worse, the pay disparity is even more severe for African-American women who earn only 65 cents and Latino women who earn 52 cents for every dollar that men earn.

The Washington-based Employment Policy Foundation, says a report on CNN, rubbished this argument in a recent book (A Closer Look at Comparable Worth) by saying that the gender pay gap has been exaggerated because it does not take into account factors that affect wages, like age, education and experience. "It's basically throwing everybody into the same pool and like comparing apples and kumquats. It's comparing, for instance, a 22-year-old female college graduate to a 55-year-old male who's had 30 years of work experience," says a spokeswoman of the Foundation.

She feels that this line of argument is a "red herring by special interest groups that believe government should be setting the wage law for the rest of us. We think the free market does a pretty good job of setting wages."

The quintessential American argument, one might well say!

Moving to India, things are certainly not hunky dory when it comes to women's wages. There certainly are employers who will not only pay women less but justify it too. They will argue that as women in their early 20s and 30s, who have a much greater burden of family responsibilities, tend to leave their jobs more often than men, this is high cost to the organisation in terms of training input. What is conveniently forgotten is that traditionally a woman is more likely to remain "loyal" and less likely to scout around for a job than her male counterpart.

In fact, not only have there been instances of women getting less for doing the same job, the discrimination begins even earlier, at the recruitment stage itself. And continues through transfers or plum postings like overseas assignments and travel. Often the top honchos get away with such discrimination because a woman is less likely to rake up such injustice or unfair work ethics. Women also tend to be much less forthright while negotiating their starting salaries or demanding a pay hike or a promotion.

Of course, things are changing; at home and overseas. Women, especially the younger lot, are getting more aggressive, and even moving courts on issues like disparity in wages.

Coming to a society which is closer to us culturally and geographically, take the case of a Tokyo court, which on February 20 ordered Nomura Securities, Japan's biggest securities firm, to pay a compensation of $420,000 to 13 women who accused the brokerage of sexual discrimination in promotion and pay.

According to a report in The New York Times, the women had moved a district court in 1993, seeking a compensation of $5 million. Saying that she plans to appeal for a bigger package, the women's lawyer told the newspaper: "Japan is still very behind the times in sexual equality on the job. The double standard rampant in big Japanese companies must be corrected."

She said that Japanese women face a severe discrimination at the work place and though laws have been passed to ensure on-the-job gender equality, a corporate culture that favours men runs deep. In this particular case, the women had been employed as clerical workers for more than 30 years and had faced discrimination all along in both pay and promotions.

Japan does not even come up to the norms followed by other Asian countries when it comes to the treatment meted out to its working women; in many Japanese offices, women are expected to serve tea to their male colleagues! Interestingly, it is not the US but Britain which has done, and is doing, much more to ensuring gender equity at the workplace.

That the British government takes this issue seriously can be seen from the measures announced on the `10 Downing Street Newsroom' (www.number-10.gov.uk) to tackle the gender pay gap.

In response to the Denise Kingsmill Report on women's employment and pay which shows that women working full time still earn only 81 per cent of full-time male earnings, the proposals urge employers to be transparent on their `human capital management' norms. For example, the British government would strive to "encourage private and public sector organisations to conduct employment and pay reviews covering all aspects of women's employment, and spread best practice through `fair pay champions'. "

The government has announced a new award to publicly recognise such employers. These proposals have come in response to a study conducted by Denise Kingsmill in April 2001 to improve women's employment prospects and participation in the labour market.

An Employment Bill, on the anvil, seeks to give working mother better choices on the jobs they would like to do. The Web site quotes the British Trade and Industry Secretary and Minister for Women, Ms. Patricia Hewitt, as saying: "The government is determined to ensure that women do not have to face a stark choice between being a mother and a successful employee." New tax laws are also in the pipeline to give a better deal to families with children.

What would be most welcome to working women in India, as elsewhere, is the measure to help fathers, especially those earning lower wages, spend more time with their new born. The government also plans to help professionally qualified women, such as scientists and engineers, to continue with their careers after childbirth and to increase the recognition of women in these professions.

Clearly, the attempt is to ensure that every woman who is educated and qualified participates in the task of nation building. The government has been concerned about the findings of a new research that has shown that "around 50,000 women science, engineering and technology graduates are not working at any one time. Of those who do return to work, only around 8,000 return to a job that makes use of their university education and training."

Sweden is well known for its gender-friendly policies and obviously the rest of Europe is respecting more and more the biological role of women in child bearing and rearing. A pity, that despite all the homilies we pay to the traditional roles of women, when it comes to measuring that role through economic incentives, words do not match up with deeds in an overpopulated country like ours.

Response can be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

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