State Issues

Thursday, May 6, 2004

Equal pay still a struggle

Forty years ago President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act saying that the bill "signaled a further determination by our country that women would find equality in their paycheck."

At the time women made 59 cents to every dollar a man made. Today American women, with comparable education and experience, earn 77 cents on average to every dollar their male counterparts make. Here in Iowa, we do slightly better with women earning 78 cents to every dollar.

Given that the pay inequity issue has seen only an 18-cent increase over 40 years, there is little reason to celebrate.

That's why last week I chose to observe Equal Pay Day, the day women must work into the new year in order to earn what their male counterparts would make in the previous year.

I met with nurses and educators, two professions that have historically been dominated by women, to talk to them about the struggles they face in their profession and strategize about ways to raise awareness about pay inequity.

I heard from a wide range of perspectives that included students, educators, RNs and LPNs; women's rights activists and government workers. Many expressed concern about the dwindling number of women who consider entering the workforce as teachers or nurses because salaries are not competitive with other career choices.

Statistics show that women dominated fields are some of the lowest paying professions. In fact, 10 jobs held primarily by women pay an average of $13.94 an hour, compared to $16.17 paid by 10 jobs held primarily by men.

Most women are either major contributors to a families' overall income or the sole breadwinners. If women-dominated careers aren't paying a living wage, then women will follow the money elsewhere creating another problem that needs addressing -- high demand with little supply in certain woman-dominated fields, like nursing.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, 60 percent of licensed nurses who are still active will be over 50 years of age and may be retired by 2009. Between 1993 and 1999, admissions to registered nursing education programs declined 40 percent and graduations declined 27 percent. (Iowa Nurses Association.) There has been a growing concern in Iowa, and across the country, about the nursing shortage and how to address it. At our meeting, the nurses expressed their concern, too, about the nursing shortage and said low pay was a factor.

In the field of education, high schools, specifically in the subjects of science and math, are having trouble recruiting new teachers because the competition is too great from scientific and mathematic professions. Women with strong math and science backgrounds can make more working in the private sector than as educators.

As I talked to nursing students, nurses, educators, administrators and aspiring teachers, it became clear that the best advocates for pay equity are women themselves. We must tell our stories, share our experiences with friends, co-workers, and business and policy leaders so that equal pay for equal work remains a goal for our state and nation.