The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond


Newsflash: PayScale Releases Big Data on Gender Pay Gap

Seattle, Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

From Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, “Awkard Black Girl” to NBA Cheerleaders, people have been talking about the gender pay gap

Now, we’ve got some new numbers to arm ourselves with when your coworker says women get paid less because of their individual choices.   

Seattle-based PayScale.com just released a study on the gender pay gap, in which they drew from their large database of salary information to compile data from 1.4 million full-time employees in the U.S. 

The report used a proprietary algorithm to compare wages between women and men based on industry, marital status, whether they were parents, and other variables. This information was taken from survey results that full-time workers submitted over the last 2 years. 

Though much of the data confirmed what we already know, there were some interesting, if disheartening new statistics. 

" Lucie & ses parents-4 " by  Thomas Sauzedde  is  is   licensed under   CC BY 2.0.

For example, it’s known that being married and having children unfairly penalizes women in the workforce.  But did you also know that a family actually gives a career boost to men? The PayScale data shows that married men with children were the highest wage earners in the country ($67,900 for married men with children, $60,800 for those without children), while single mothers earn the lowest wages in the country.  Those that need the pay the most earn the least.


Yet strangely, the data also showed that men prioritize home and family responsibilities more often than women.  How could this be? We know that women still spend more working hours each year taking care of children and family obligations.  But remember, the PayScale data was based on survey responses.  The answer becomes clear in another piece of information: “The more often a woman tells us that she prioritizes home/family over work, the larger the controlled gender pay gap becomes, even when compared to men with similar characteristics who say they prioritize home/family over work with the same frequency.” 

Ah.  There it is.  Women cannot even say that they would prioritize their family if they had to, because they are penalized for it. 

Unsurprisingly, some of the industries with the highest gender pay gap were male dominated ones such as mining, oil and gas extraction, and forestry.  Yet even within female-dominated industries such as health care and social assistance (79% women), there still exists a large pay gap. This reflects how we devalue women’s work overall as a society, regardless of the industry.  Currently, the PayScale data showed a 24.3% “uncontrolled” pay gap, and a 1.7% “controlled” pay gap for healthcare.

1.7 percent! That doesn’t seem so bad, does it?  Let’s take a look at what that actually means.   PayScale offered two data sets for each item they examined.  One was “uncontrolled” in which they simply looked at all full-time wages, regardless of job level, experience, etc.  The other was “controlled” in which they only compared wages that had the same job level and experience.  It’s tempting to want to celebrate the smaller wage gap for the controlled data.  However, it does not communicate one very critical point: much of the wage gap exists because women are blocked from advancing into higher positions.  It also misses out on the fact that jobs of equal skill and education level are valued less if they are jobs traditionally held by women.  So the uncontrolled data shows what women’s wages are in a more complete sense.

Another finding new to me was the age at which worker’s pay plateaus.  From our first jobs, our wages continue to increase until we reach a certain age, when they flatten out or even drop.  According to PayScale, men can expect their wages to keep increasing until they are 50-55, while women, shockingly, can only expect their pay to rise until they are 35-40.  What does this say about how we value women as they age, compared to men? 

Finally, I wonder if the data includes the most marginalized industries, which are often female-dominated, and/or have a majority of people of color, such as housekeeping and home care.  Does the data include those pieces of the population?  Who don't have access to the PayScale survey, don't speak English, or don't use a computer?

However, the big data PayScale compiled is still telling. So what do we do with it?  How can we use it to make the pay gap smaller? 

It should be seen as a wake-up call.  We tend to think that we are somehow ‘past’ the gender pay gap.  That it’s a choice.  That women should just work harder or be more confident.  But this data shows that it’s much, much more than a personal journey.  It’s an enormous, ingrained bias that we all hold (women too!).  But even more so, it's our systems and the way our businesses and industries are defined. This data helps us understand the pay gap in our own industries.  So how about instead of changing the women, we upgrade the workplace?  Other developed countries are doing this with practical things like paid family leave (not just maternal leave), more time off, better benefits, and affordable childcare.  We could utilize 'unconscious bias training' and hiring techniques to diversify leadership roles. The U.S. is still lagging behind.  But if our labor laws aren’t changing fast enough, individual businesses can step up and implement change themselves.  Because it’s not just the right thing to do.  It’s also good for business

To view PayScale’s report, visit http://www.payscale.com/data-packages/gender-pay-gap

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Why I'm voting for Kshama Sawant

SeattleMartha BurwellComment

The posters are everywhere.

On lamp posts, windows and trees. The volunteers are knocking on doors, the signs are stuck into neighbor’s lawns, flower beds and any spare patch of grass.  Gonzales! O’Brien! Weatbrook! Sawant! Juarez! Maddux! They scream, demanding our attention.

And that can only mean one thing: It’s that time again, it’s election time!

(c) Martha Burwell

(c) Martha Burwell

Throughout the year, to help us get to know our candidates better, I have spoken with several councilmembers and candidates on gender equity in Seattle.  Earlier this summer, I had a chance to talk to Kshama Sawant, who’s running for reelection in District 3 (East Central Seattle).

We began with a status update—how is Seattle doing currently?  She responded with a theme I’ve heard from quite a few leaders: Though we view ourselves as progressive, it’s clear “how much of a challenge Seattle still has to rise to in order to make this a city where women are treated equal to men.”   In other words, “there’s a gap between what we want or expect Seattle to be, and (…) the reality.”  And a part of the solution, she urged, is to have Seattle City Council members “who are genuinely going to be beholden to the needs of women, people of color, and everyone who’s marginalized, rather than (…) big businesses.”

“If you’re elected again,” I asked, “What’s one issue related to gender equality that you would address?”

“I don’t think any one thing by itself will address the social issues that we are discussing,” she started.  “When you have a city like Seattle which is extremely wealthy, and at the same time has this stunning wealth and income inequality (…) it hits women the hardest.  It hits single mom households the hardest. It hits people of color the hardest.  It hits women of color, the trans community, the LGBTQ community the hardest.”

Kshama Sawant , used with permission

Kshama Sawant, used with permission

So, there's no silver bullet, no magic panacea, rather we will have to see dramatic and sweeping changes before Seattle comes anywhere close to achieving true gender equity.

She gave an example, however, of how we have recently made some first tentative steps in this direction: earlier this year Seattle passed a 4 week paid parental leave policy for public city employees.  In Sawant’s words, this is a start, but “In 2015, we’re just implementing basic rights for parents to care for their children (….) and if you talk to anyone raising children, they’ll tell you that four weeks is nowhere near close enough.”

What would she do about this in her second term?

Twelve weeks of paid parental leave for all of Seattle’s workers,” she stated without hesitation. “I don’t care whether you are CEO or a cashier at QFC.  You should have all those basic human rights.  And paid parental leave of a sizable number of days is absolutely a human right.”

And the key term here is “parental leave,” because “we don’t want to have a future vision of society which pushes all the burden of raising a family only on women.  We want to have a cultural reawakening of our society where we view familial responsibilities and the organization of society itself in an equal way.”

Zoom that example out to the big-scale picture.  If we’re talking seriously about gender equity, she argued, then we need “a larger support structure for all the families in Seattle, all the people in Seattle.”  We need a “socializing of the burden that falls on individual families,” she explained. 

A socializing of the burden What does this mean? One thing it means is “full funding of all social services and mental health services (…) a social safety net for those who are on the brink of homelessness, those who are experiencing sudden job loss, those who have other financial setbacks.” 

She continued: “This would also encompass services for women who might be experiencing violence (…) and are looking for a way out of that. (…) Research has shown that women remain in relationships they should be free of because they are concerned about the lack of financial support structure, especially if they have children. So it’s absolutely critical that our society provides that network of support structure.”

I agree, nodding my head. Our safety nets are sorely lacking for women, especially those women who are most vulnerable, women who are the victims of domestic violence or who are pushed to homelessness after losing their already low-paying jobs.   But how would we pay for this, I wondered. How would we pay for all of these services that we need so badly? “Progressive taxation,’ replied Sawant, immediately.  “This is a state that has the most regressive tax system.  That hits women the hardest.  Women-headed households are some of the most poverty stricken, some of the lowest income households, partly as a consequence of the gender pay gap, partly because of other issues.  There’s systemic, intergenerational poverty.”  To combat this, “we need to tax the super-wealthy and big businesses to fund these social services.”  

Used with permission

Used with permission

And it was hard not to see the sense of Sawant’s points; tech-heavy Seattle has a few people who could probably afford to pay a little more to the taxman.

Throughout our conversation, and indeed most times that I’ve seen Sawant speak, she always returned to how all our social movements are, and must be, intrinsically connected.  She put it well when I asked her my final question, “what would you say to a young boy, and a young girl, who wants to become a city leader when they grow up?” 

“I would say the same thing to both, which is that regardless of your gender (…) we have to fight for the rights of all workers, together in solidarity,” you can’t just fight for yourself.  Yet at the same time, “you also have to realize that we have to fight against specific oppressions. For example, said Sawant, “if you’re committed to social justice, whether you’re a man or a woman, you have to be committed to fighting against sexism.”

After my conversation with Sawant, it was hard not to be impressed. She seemed to be saying the right things – and that’s important. Because by putting these issues on the table, in her loud, impossible to ignore manner, she is forcing everyone else to look at them too. In what is known as the overton window, or the “range of ideas that the public will accept,” she pushes the entire conversation towards the things that she cares about, which tend to be toward creating a more fair Seattle.

More importantly than saying the right things, during her time in office she has also seemed to be doing the right things, consistently pursuing policies related to social equity, many of which directly or indirectly improve gender equity.  One recent example is when she decided to annoy several rather high profile Seattleites by skipping a scheduled Rotary Club debate.  Instead, she attended a Columbia City protest against a profiteering landlord, standing up for the tenants, many of whom were low-income women and people of color, who are the most vulnerable to negative effects of rent increases.

Somehow I can’t imagine Pamela Banks doing the same…

And the conclusion?  Care about gender equity: Vote Kshama Sawant.

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For more opinions on Seattle City leaders, see my posts on Catherine Weatbrook, and Mike O'Brien (part 1 and part 2). 

Change the system, not the women, argues Caroline Fredrickson

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

Caroline Fredrickson’s grandmother came to the USA on a boat from Sweden over 100 years ago.  She came alone, with no money, no friends, and no English language skills.  She worked as a scullery maid, “scrubbing pots and pans until her fingers bled.”  She faced sexual harassment, no overtime pay or sick days, extremely long hours, and wage theft. 

Surely, we’ve come a long way since then.  Surely, our workers are treated better, and have more rights. 

Some do.  But definitely not all. 

Caroline Fredrickson is challenging the “Lean In” model.  Last week in downtown Seattle, I attended an American Constitution Society event where she was speaking, and was seated in a sea of lawyers, most of whom were women.

The event centered around Fredrickson’s book, “Under the Bus: How Working Women Are being Run Over,” in which she argues that though having a ‘self help book” (her words) such as Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, has some great ideas, it’s not nearly enough for most women. 

Lean In states that women should speak up for themselves, and that they can also ‘opt-out’ and stay at home if they desire.  But “most women can’t do either of those things” stated Fredrickson. “We need to have a different conversation,” because there are many people whose jobs fall outside of even the most basic labor laws. 

How is this possible?

1.  Labor laws hold a legacy of slavery

Many of our U.S. labor laws were created in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries.   Think of what congress looked like at that time.  Roosevelt was president during the passage of several significant labor bills, and had to negotiate with congress members who adamantly refused to give certain people (read: people of color) equal rights.  Congressional records show US representatives in the 1930s and 40s referring to African-American servants as “God’s gift to the South” that should not be taken away.  A clear legacy of slavery and white entitlement. So Roosevelt negotiated.  And a lot of people got left out of those laws, in particular service industry and farm workers.

2.  Women’s work was not considered “real work” when labor laws were created

Common sentiment in political leadership at the time (which still lingers today) did not consider jobs like housekeeping and childcare "real" work, mainly because white men did not typically have to do that work.  So again, that work was not regulated.  And we see that reflected today in the lack of humane working conditions for jobs such as childcare, housekeeping, and home care workers, in which the majority of workers are women, particularly women of color.

3.  There are significant loopholes for businesses to deny worker rights, such as exemptions for small businesses, part time workers, and contractors.

“In reality,” Fredrickson explained, “the basic safety nets that we think all people have access to are often denied, particularly to people of color and women, because they fall outside the legal definition of employee.” Overtime, protection from harassment, paid sick time, paid leave—in the U.S., these can be denied from a very large percentage of the workforce.  The kicker: they are denied legally, because the Fair Labor Standards Act has significant exemptions. For example, benefits can be denied if an employee works less than 30 hours per week, so a common technique is to have many employees at 29 hours per week. Contractors are also exempt, and the definition is hazy. For example, you may be familiar with the lawsuit earlier this year that Uber and Lyft drivers brought against their employers. And again, people of color and women are impacted the most, because they hold the majority of low-pay, low-status jobs.

4.  The American workplace has not caught up with the rest of the world in treating workers like humans

“The (American) workplace is structured for some kind of robot man…we never really grappled with the idea that people have outside responsibilities.”  In other words, we haven’t built the legal or business infrastructure to support real people.  The USA and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world without some kind of paid parental leave.  Our strongest law is the feeble Family and Medical Leave Act, with 12 weeks of unpaid leave for businesses larger than 50 employees.  In reality, 40% of workers in our country don’t even qualify.  Being unpaid, even if you do qualify, many people can’t afford to take it.  We’re still “treating workers like widgets,” as Fredrickson put it.  And, unsurprisingly, women are the ones who are impacted the most by this, as they still hold a majority of family responsibilities that require time off.

5. Lately, the most progress has been seen at the local level. 

The past several years, it’s been tough to get bills passed in congress.  “We used to dream big,” lamented Fredrickson.  In the mid-20th century, we *almost* passed laws that would provide free childcare to all (!), and better working conditions nation-wide, she explained. But now, action is happening at the local level.  Seattle is pretty awesome in having passed the $15 minimum wage.  Other cities and localities are taking note.  But conservative groups are also paying attention, and responding.

6.  The linchpin: Conservative groups are attempting to block progressive laws by
deciding on state judges.

This was the cumulative moment in Fredrickson’s speech.  This is where it all comes together. 

The Temple of Justice , Home to Washington's State Supreme Court  by  Harvey Barrison   is  licensed under   CC BY 2.0.

The Temple of Justice, Home to Washington's State Supreme Court by Harvey Barrison
 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Imagine it’s time for your state to elect their judges.  Enter wealthy, conservative groups such as ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), who want to make sure a judge that will rule more in their favor will be elected.  They throw huge amounts of money into the campaigns they support.  They run smear ads on judges they don’t support.  More progressive judges begin to rule more conservatively, so that they won’t be the target of those ads, and so that they can be elected again.  The elections are held, and it’s clear that money does influence the outcome. 

Those judges then help determine laws that decide the fate of the entire state.  And the most dangerous thing of all—they may pass “preemptive laws” which essentially mandate that local city governments can’t make more progressive laws than the state law.  If Washington State had had a preemptive law on minimum wage, Seattle would never have been able to pass the historical $15 bill, that is now affecting cities worldwide. That’s not to say that progressive interest groups don’t also put money into elections, but recent events have shown that conservative groups are willing to spend huge amounts, and it’s working. 

7. The solution is hazy

I thoroughly enjoyed Fredrickson’s analysis of the legal state of laws that impact workers.  However, I was left unclear of what a solution would be.  Does it mean changing how we elect state judges?  Or refocusing on national laws?  Or something else altogether? I’m not sure.  I look forward to reading the book and I hope that there are also solution ideas for this urgent problem.