04/18/2012 10:33 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2012

More Green, Less Red

Living in the 21st century, we would like to think our world is more socially and politically progressive than in the past. But on national Equal Pay Day on April 17, we are reminded that discrimination and inequality still pervade our society.

Equal Pay Day is a public awareness day that serves to galvanize support to bridge the gap between men's and women's wages. The day originated in 1996 when President Bill Clinton declared April 11 "National Pay Inequity Awareness Day." That year women earned 73.8 cents for every dollar earned by a man, according the 1996 U.S. Census Bureau report.

"Unfortunately, the wage gap was not much different in 1996 than it is now," said Michele Leber, chair of the National Committee on Pay Equity, a volunteer organization.

According to statistics released in 2010 by the U.S. Census Bureau, women earn 77.4 cents for every dollar a man earns. Equal Pay Day is held on a Tuesday in April to symbolize how far into the workweek women must work to make what men made the previous week. This means that it takes seven days of work for a woman to earn what a man earned in five business days.

To commemorate the day, some bars hold "unhappy hours," offering complimentary refreshments for women. Organizations hold bake sales and charge female customers 77% of what they charge male customers. Individuals write letters to their local government officials to advocate for fair pay, some sending boxes of cookies with a quarter of each cookie broken off in efforts to emphasize the discrepancy between wages. The NCPE also encourages people to wear red to symbolize how women are still "in the red."


On Columbia University's campus, administrators and students are making an effort to combat workplace discrimination based on gender.

Earlier this month Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, and John Coatsworth, University Provost, released a statement to the Columbia community announcing that the University would be committing $30 million "to the recruitment and support of outstanding female and underrepresented minority scholars."

"Columbia is poised for new investments in the recruitment of outstanding faculty and postdoctoral scholars from underrepresented groups to more closely reflect the composition of the national pool of qualified candidates," Bollinger and Coatsworth announced.

This financial contribution will fund a small-grant program and the creation of mentoring and professional development programs for junior faculty. This announcement came in the aftermath of a Columbia University report released in December 2011 that revealed there may be salary inequity for female research officers at the University.

Columbia University's Amnesty International Chapter, a student organization that works to combat human rights violations, has taken on the issue of salary inequity by raising student awareness.

Junaid Chaudhry, a Columbia College senior and co-president of CUAI, said that salary inequity based on gender is "an issue that is relevant to our campus just as much as it is on the national and international level."

When the Columbia Daily Spectator published an article about the potential salary inequity among the University's female research officers in January, CUAI decided to take action.

They went door-to-door throughout the campus polling students on their level of interest in the issue of salary inequity on campus. CUAI found that 78.9% of the 133 students polled supported CUAI in lobbying the University to conduct another salary inequity report with more current data.

"We were concerned that this may be an issue that the undergraduate population cares deeply about, but doesn't know anything about," Chaudhry said.

To demonstrate to students how female research officers weren't getting an equal share of what their male counterparts earned, CUAI distributed free candy bars to students walking along Columbia's College Walk one afternoon. To every man they gave a king-size candy bar, and to every woman they gave a smaller candy bar. Information on the University's salary inequity report was also distributed to students.

While CUAI was successful in efforts to raise student awareness of this issue, Chaudhry said there is still more work to be done.

"The University did try to take this issue very seriously and are acting on it. But while it's well and good for them to give $30 million, we want them to do another study," Chaudhry said.


Barnard College, the women's college affiliated with Columbia University, has been prepping its students for years on how to deal with workplace double standards and how to negotiate for equal pay.

Salary inequity on the basis of gender "is a socio-political issue, so we can only affect it so much," said Robert Earl, director of Barnard Career Development. Equal Pay Day "is a great opportunity to create awareness and for people to galvanize themselves around this issue and become very vocal."

Barnard Career Development is the College's career services center for students, and offers career guidance specifically tailored to fit the needs of an all-female student body. "One thing that I'm critically aware of is internalized oppression," Earl said. "A woman may feel that she can't ask or shouldn't get paid, or her value may not be as much. We want to flush it out," Earl said.

Leber encourages women, especially students, to negotiate salaries, but admits that "negotiation has been a double-edged sword because women who negotiated were less likely to get the job, and overall women graduates don't negotiate nearly as much as men. When a woman starts out a job behind a man's salary, that gap is only going to increase as she goes on," Leber said, citing statistics from

According to Earl, "students do not want to negotiate salary. It's like pulling teeth. But we walk you through how to negotiate, and students walk out feeling empowered." Leber said that the NCPE has been trying to get the Paycheck Fairness Act passed by Congress, but in November 2010 it lost in a vote of 58-41. Although discouraging, Leber said "we haven't given up."

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