Before we experience a 2016 re-run of President Obama’s successful “War on Women” strategy, let’s take a closer look at the underlining facts or fictions supporting the concept.
First, however, perhaps we can rid ourselves of the “War-on” metaphors. Actual wars are violent events wherein millions of people suffer greatly, and millions of others die terrible deaths. The sheer magnitude and horror of actual wars dwarf social problems like War on Poverty, War on Cancer, War on Drugs, War on Gangs, War on Women, and the War on Christmas.
Countless examples of issues affecting women fall into three separate categories:
1. Equal pay for equal work
2. Laws governing women’s medical issues
3. Domestic violence, rape, and demeaning speech
This post will discuss equal pay issues. Discussion of the next two categories will be in later posts.
For perspective, here’s a true story that began a few years after WWII. An elderly man, retired for many years, told me about his short career at Western Electric, in Kearny, NJ in the early 1950s.
Western Electric was the manufacturing arm of the Bell System. The company produced giant switching systems, and other heavy-duty equipment used to run telephone company branch offices. My friend—I’ll call him Tommy—came from one of the typical working class Irish families in Kearny. After high school, he and many of his buddies joined Western Electric. They expected to work there for 30-40 years, drink beer at a working man’s bar after quitting time each day, marry the girl next door, raise a family, and live frugally over a lifetime of about 60 years. Those modest expectations were typical for many of the 24,000 people working for Western Electric in Kearny.
Tommy began at the company working on a shipping dock, loading and unloading trucks. He enjoyed the work and the blue-collar comradery of his co-workers. The job required a strong person. Though he was short and slim, he was strong and athletic enough to do the job. Tommy expected to work on the shipping docks for many years. But a union leader saw him during a job safety inspection and recognized a problem. He demanded Tommy’s immediate transfer to a different position.
The problem was Tommy’s small stature. He was 18 years old and hadn’t finished growing. He was only 5-feet-4-inches tall and weighed only 130 pounds. Tommy’s job description required him to be at least two inches taller and to weigh at least ten more pounds. Management stated that very specifically to eliminate women from that class of jobs. In the company culture of that era, management believed that the requirement protected women from dangerous health risks.
Tommy’s new job was in the finance department and placed him at a desk within a roomful of women. He discovered that he had strong financial math skills, managing reports for payments to and from various telephone companies. As his skills increased, the company continually trained him for more important responsibilities.
After four years at Western Electric, Tommy had grown taller and heavy enough to qualify for his original job on the shipping dock, but now earned a salary too high for that position. He knew he could have a long career in finance, but decided instead to join the US Navy. Personnel management in the Navy recognized his financial background and assigned him to increasingly complex financial jobs. By the end of his Navy enlistment, he had capabilities similar to those of a civilian accountant. Taking advantage of veteran’s benefits, Tommy enrolled in college with an accounting major and qualified to become a CPA after graduating. Within a few years, he had his own CPA business and became comfortably wealthy.
Telling me this story, he added, “I owe everything to Western Electric and its paternalistic attitude toward women. Without that discrimination, I would have never had an accounting career. I’d probably be drinking cheap draft beer in a Kearny bar tonight.”
Tommy’s story is a bit ironic, but it illustrates a typical part of the job market in the 1950s. Western Electric management had hiring practices that no one considered discriminatory in that era. Jobs had specific physical requirements, and the company hired people based on their perceived physical abilities. Smaller people—i.e. women—weren’t considered as qualified for heavier work.
Since those days, however, the workplace has seen tremendous changes. Other than a few exceptions—e.g. construction jobs—very few positions today require physical strength. Products in every industry are smaller and lighter than they were in the1950s. Loaders and material handlers use safe, modern forklifts that can be handled by people of any size. As a result, women can handle any jobs that men can.
Women today are more dominant than men in many industries and professions, such as medicine, law, technology sales, news media, and publishing. Despite these advances, the usual stats indicate that women earn $0.77 for every $1 earned by men. This same anomaly is present on the President’s White House staff and Hillary Clinton’s campaign organization.
Why does this situation persist? It’s because of the facile statistical method used to make a political argument. From my experience working for a Fortune 100 company for many years, women ALWAYS received salaries equal to those of their male counterparts. It wasn’t necessarily true in the early 80s, but the company had reviewed all salaries by 1990 and increased those for women where needed to ensure parity. Friends in numerous other companies experienced the same process.
But the stats still don’t work when we compare averages for full worker populations. Here’s why. Most organizations have more positions in the lower tiers, a majority of which are handled by women. Many women make life choices, usually around children. They may leave the workforce for a year or more before re-entering. Many choose jobs closer to home, without the need for long hours or travel. For these reasons, a significant number of women effectively choose lower-paying administrative jobs. This choice creates the so-called “mommy track” discussed by sociologists. It also creates a persistent statistical illusion that women receive lower pay when compared to men within a large group. Even though a comparison of any woman to any man with the same responsibilities demonstrates that both genders receive equal pay.
The contention that women receive lower pay for the same qualifications and same work as men is statistical fantasy and not a valid grievance. It can’t count as part of unfairness to women. It’s not related to laws governing women’s medical issues, domestic violence, rape, or demeaning speech, all of which we’ll examine in upcoming posts.
My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history with a different kind of Military, and better outcomes for all Americans. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX