"Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment." -- President Obama, State of the Union
When I heard him say this, I was stunned -- the good kind of stunned. I sat eager for the cameras to pan so I could see the facial expressions of our representatives. As I watched woman after woman stand and applaud, I wondered how many of them were as surprised as I was. I think I would be embarrassed as well to be the leader of this nation with these statistics -- especially as I looked out and saw all the women in positions of political leadership and power.
Equal pay for equal work certainly is something I am passionate about but honestly, I never believed any president would take it seriously enough to talk about it, let alone feel anything about it. When I looked at the women applauding, I felt proud; they are testimony to the long, arduous journey women have taken on this road of equal rights. I thought about Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, in 1866, was the first woman to run for the U.S House of Representatives even though she did not have the right to vote. That would not come until the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama acknowledged two women for their rise as business leaders in the United States: Mary Barra, first woman to become a CEO in the U.S. auto-industry, and Andra Rush, another woman CEO in the auto-industry (Rush Trucking and Detroit Manufacturing) who is also a Mohawk Native American. Granted, I know politics are politics but these are the kind of highlights that kids see and think, "When I grew up, I want to be..."
In a time when STEM is focusing on recruiting more young girls, and toy makers are appealing to the intelligence of young girls and not just their aesthetics, these are the moments that make me feel proud of what women have accomplished, and motivates me to address what remains to be done and to create new opportunities for our younger generations.
As a mother of a young boy who has as many girls as boys as friends, I watch this generation embrace differences that have more to do with internal differences, i.e. learning, and less to do with external ones, i.e. color and gender. Yes, there is still a long way to go but I am relieved to see him and his peers be untroubled by what our grandparents -- and some contemporary reality TV show folks -- might have believed were insurmountable differences. I certainly talk to my son, and encourage him to continue to see his female peers as his equal. I hope as he grows up he will know that the women he works with deserve to be paid what he is paid should their experience and determination match.
In 1999, I worked for a web development firm. The day I found out my male colleagues were getting more training and were making more while I had four years more experience in the industry then any of them, I quit, and opened my own firm making six times the hourly wage they were dribbling my way. In fact, within three weeks, all of the employees had quit. We went onto support each other's creative web endeavors as independent, collaborative contractors.
As independent contractors, we set our own prices for our individual services, and were paid what we asked. The best part was we were transparent with each other regarding what we were making. This educated everyone across the board, men and women alike, and helped us to price our work. If someone wanted to underprice themselves, that was their choice. But in my experience, no one did. We were all very educated and experienced, and very aware of what our time and expertise were worth.
I understand that many people do not take this kind of initiative, and if they do, it does not always work out this way. But stories of precedence are extremely important -- especially for those people who see and believe the odds are against them. Because truly, all change begins when we ourselves ask for it. By seeking mentors or simply speaking candidly with one another, we can educate ourselves to better advocate for higher wages.
In her article, Architecting Our Own Glass Ceilings, Ann marie Houghtailing notes, "In my own experience with women entrepreneurs... women are resistant to claim a higher number even when their skills and experience may command that number." Ms. Houghtailing is so passionate about this, she is making a movie about it as well. (See Architecting Our Own Glass Ceiling on YouTube)
It is disheartening to recognize how we limit ourselves and how our own self-limitations act to inhibit other women who might want more in their lives. Yet at the same time, it is empowering to know we are in control of ourselves; with education and encouragement, we can act and negotiate on our own professional behalves and eventually, earn more.
I believe right now the odds are in our favor to see pay equality within my son's lifetime. After all, the government usually is the last entity to acknowledge change is happening. So when the President admits to being embarrassed by this, some little boy or girl has heard him say that. They are listening to their mothers and fathers, and teachers and doctors talk about this. After all one day, they will be contributors to society. Their actions will be the catalysts that will precipitate the change the generations before them have been talking about and working towards.
And on that day, no one will be embarrassed about how little they make compared to the person next to them doing the same job with the same skill and the same amount of experience -- no matter their gender.