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FEATURES | summer 2008

The Wages of Activism
In the title of her new book, a New York congresswoman points out that Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated-so we have to keep up the good progressive fight.

rumors of our progress book coverIn the mid- to late 1990s, as glossy magazines churned out cheerful stories about flexible, family-friendly workplaces, I wasn’t seeing it. Women kept telling me that their employers were demanding more and more. Working mothers seemed to be having the hardest time. They were being passed over for promotions, marginalized if they asked for a flexible or part-time schedule and fired first in the growing number of downsizings.

The workplace seemed to be placing more and more value on “ideal workers,” a phrase coined by Joan Williams, professor of law and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. “Ideal workers” are employees who are unconstrained by outside responsibilities, including family. By definition, mothers suffer the most in the face of the ideal worker standard, which negatively judges those who have caregiving responsibilities.

By 2000, my instincts were telling me that the workplace actually wasn’t becoming more family-friendly and that women no longer seemed to be making steady gains in workplace equality. I hoped I was just being paranoid. So Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and I requested of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) a study on the wage gap.

Unfortunately, the initial GAO study proved my paranoia to be fact and confirmed my worst fears.

  • In 7 of 10 industries that employ more than 70 percent of women workers and managers, the wage gap between men and women managers actually grew between 1995 and 2000.
  • After couples had children, fathers’ incomes went north and mothers’ incomes went south.
  • Sixty percent of male managers had children, compared to just 40 percent of female managers.

Rep. Dingell and I requested a second, more comprehensive study. It reviewed nearly 20 years of data on workers at all levels, not just managers. It controlled for demographic and work-related factors such as occupation, industry, race, marital status and job tenure. It also controlled for work patterns: the fact that women on the whole have fewer years of work experience, work fewer hours per year, are less likely to work full-time and leave the labor force for longer periods than men do. These are many of the factors cited by wage-gap defenders, who claim it can be explained by women’s freely made career choices.

The report’s conclusions were unequivocal. “Even after accounting for key factors that affect earnings,” its authors said, “our model could not explain all of the difference in earnings between men and women.” The study suggested that discrimination could account for at least part of the discrepancy.

Bad news, but hardly surprising.

I’ve concluded that while some mothers cheerfully flatten or invert their career trajectories to raise children, there are serious flaws in the workplace and in public policy. More often than not, it is these flaws, rather than an enthusiastic choice, that force mothers out of the workforce. In the American workplace, equality is still out of reach, as these statistics show.

  • Women managers made 79.7 cents to a man’s dollar in 2000—0.7 percent less than they made in 1983.
  • In the 2000 GAO study, 70 percent of respondents said earning enough to pay their bills and spend time with their family was getting harder, not easier.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the percentage of women in executive management positions actually fell from 32 percent in 1990 to 19 percent in 2000.

Creating a family-friendly workplace is everyone’s responsibility. Employers, employees, the government and you must all get involved. Stay abreast of legislation that affects these issues and urge your representatives to support them, get involved in initiatives at your own workplace, and work at the grassroots level to address these issues in your own backyard. Here are some ways to get started.

Join or start a Wage Club. The WAGE Project is a nonprofit group working to end workplace discrimination against women:

Learn more about pay equity and what to do about it. The American Association of University Women has an excellent pay equity resource kit:

Encourage gender-equity audits. Business and Professional Women/USA devised a questionnaire that helps employers gauge their performance:

Demand what you’re worth. will help you determine the pay ranges for a given job by location, experience and education. Then, learn to negotiate a higher rate:

Urge your congresspeople to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. See for details.

The full text of this article appears in the Summer issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community at

From Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women’s Lives Aren’t Getting Any Easier and How We Can Make Real Progress for Ourselves and Our Daughters (Modern Times, 2008).