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Women's Studies Graduates Learn About Pay Equity

Written by Michele Tracy Berger on 07 April 2011.

As part of my end of the semester ritual, I routinely invite 10-12  distinguished seniors out for dessert to celebrate their upcoming  graduation. These are students, majoring or minoring in women's studies,  which I have had the honor of teaching and mentoring over many years.  It's my small way of celebrating their accomplishments and introducing  talented students to one another.

This year, I'm moving up the date from  May to April, because I have an ulterior motive.  

I'm going to diverge from my standard slate of questions about their  
most memorable moments as a student and what they will miss about campus  
life. Instead, I want to talk with them about a phenomenon that will  
determine their future professional lives as much as their hard work has  
over the last four years. I want to talk with them about pay equity and  
Equal Pay Day.  

Because women earn less, on average, than men, they must work longer to  
receive the same amount of pay. In recognition of this inequity, this  
year Equal Pay Day will be marked on Tuesday, April 12. To match what  
men earned in 2010, women must work from January 2010 to April 2011 --  
an extra three and a half months.  

Behind the Pay Gap, research released in April 2007 by the American  
Association of University Women, shows that just one year out of  
college, women working full time already earn less than their male  
colleagues, even when they work in the same field. Ten years after  
graduation, the pay gap widens. In North Carolina there is, on average,  
a $20,000 gap between college educated women and men. Many of my  
graduates hope to find work in North Carolina. Making less money than  
their male peers is not what I call rolling out the red carpet for  
talented female graduates. Students and their parents have made  
tremendous monetary sacrifices so that they can earn a college degree. A  
wage gap is a fairness gap that erodes women's economic security over  
the course of her life and flushes much of that early investment down  
the drain.  

Lower pay for women is generally explained away with this invalid  
argument: Women simply choose work that pays less than the fields men  
pursue. This criticism doesn't hold up to research by economists and  
sociologists who document a distinct discrimination pattern across all  
ages, races, occupations and education levels.  

Why do I want to have this conversation? These students desire to  
transform themselves and the world. Women's studies, as an academic  
field of study, has made a home in higher education for almost 40 years.  
The field promotes theory linked with practical action in the world  
beyond the classroom. I just finished conducting a global survey of 900  
women's and gender studies graduates (1995-2010). I found that women and  
men graduate with incredible skills, find fulfilling work (thus  
dispelling the mocking question of "What can you do with a women's and  
gender studies degree?") and demonstrate a commitment to gender equity  
over the course of their lives. Women's studies is about men and women  
becoming change agents.  

So, over dessert I envision piquing the interest and ire of my bright,  
capable, fairness-oriented women and men and watching them brainstorm  
what they might do. There's a lot they and others can do to remedy how  
women are getting shortchanged in the workplace.  

To the women in the group, I'll suggest that they learn and practice how  
to negotiate. College women are not usually trained in negotiation  
skills. Knowing how to negotiate, according to some researchers, can  
help individual women earn better starting salaries that can narrow pay  
inequities.  

But, that's just the beginning. I might propose a "dessert in" with  
family members and friends where they display sweets missing the 23  
percent that symbolically illustrates how women are cheated out of their  
fair share of the pie. Maybe I will provide them with information on how  
to contact their House Representative and Senators to let them know that  
they support proposals like the Paycheck Fairness Act because fair pay  
is important to their future.  

I don't know how they will respond or what they will do. But, I have  
complete confidence that once they know about the realities of pay  
inequity and how it affects them, they will take action. The graduates I  
know are always looking for ways to work with other people interested in  
women's and gender equality.  

That's what being a change agent is all about.  
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Berger is associate professor in the Department of Women's Studies at  
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a member at large of the  
American Association of University Women.  
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