One of the biggest applause lines in President Clinton's State of the Union speech came when he asked Congress to work with him to "make sure that women and men get equal pay for equal work by strengthening enforcement of equal pay laws." Surveys show that Americans believe we've made substantial progress in this area, but there is some distance still to go. And, in a pattern familiar in many surveys, women and men are more optimistic about what's going on in their own workplaces than they are about what is happening in the nation.
From 1970 to 1995, Virginia Slims commissioned seven major studies of women's attitudes. Louis Harris did the first two surveys and Roper Starch Worldwide the next five. Building on these important surveys, the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University explored women's and men's attitudes about workplace issues, including equal pay.
Sixty percent of women and 73 percent of men in the 1997 Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey said the earnings gap was smaller than it was 20 years ago. Sixty-seven percent of women and 81 percent of men said men and women were paid the same "where you work." Twenty-two percent of women and 4 percent of men said women were paid less. As for women in general, seventy percent of men and 81 percent of women in the survey said women who worked full time earned less than men.
Sixty-three percent of women and 76 percent of men said women had the same chances as men for promotion and advancement to top positions where they worked; 30 percent of women and 16 percent of men said there were limits. A third of women and 38 percent of men said they would be interested in a top executive or professional position where they worked.
Surveys show that most women (and men) say they haven't personally experienced discrimination. Large majorities of both sexes say women don't face discrimination in getting an education or in getting entry-level jobs, but they still see barriers in top business, government or military positions.
Before becoming director of the Congressional Budget Office, economist June O'Neill deconstructed the wage gap, tracking it from 1890 when women earned 46 cents on the dollar. O'Neill argued that the gap began to narrow in the late 1970s because of advances in women's schooling and skills and changes in their expectations about work.
Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, she argued, showed that only 28 percent of white women ages 14 to 24 in 1968 expected to be working at age 35; by 1979, 72 percent of young white women expected to be working at age 35. Women prepared themselves better for work because they expected to be working longer.
More continuous experience in the work force also helped to narrow the gap. Women - in large part because they tend to be primary caregivers in families - still leave and re-enter the work force more often than men, and interruptions in work experience depress women's earnings. O'Neill suggested that wage differences "attributed solely to gender are likely to be much smaller than is commonly believed."
Today women earn 74 cents for every dollar that men earn, but that statistic tells us very little because it lumps together women and men with different levels of skills, education and commitment to work.
When we compare like to like, the wage gap shrinks. Data from the National Longitudinal Study show that women ages 27 to 33 with similar educational backgrounds, work experience and positions as men of the same age earn 98 cents for every dollar the men earn.
Roper Starch Worldwide in 1990 and 1995 and the Post/Kaiser/Harvard team in 1997 explored the reasons why there are so few women in top-level executive and professional positions. In the 1997 survey, 60 percent of women (and 40 percent of men) said that "men don't want women to get ahead" was a major reason. Almost as many women accepted arguments made by economists such as O'Neill.
Fifty-seven percent of women (and 53 percent of men) said that "the doors have not been open to women long enough for many women to have made it to the top." Fifty-five percent of women cited family responsibilities as a major reason many women find it impossible to work as many hours as men, affecting their opportunities to advance.