What We Talk About When We Talk About Pay Inequity

Five women, including Alix Keller, center, recently gathered over dinner to discuss one thing they all have in common: the gender wage gap. She was joined by Gayl Johnson, left, in blue, and (clockwise) Melissa Robbins, Jewelle Bickford, and Kimberly Webster.

Early in her career, Jewelle Bickford, now a partner at Evercore Wealth Management, worked at a global bank in New York with a male colleague who was on his best behavior during the first half of the day, she said, but during and after lunch, his work ethic devolved. “When he came back, you would walk by his office, and he would have his head down,” Ms. Bickford said. “And you knew he had had quite a few drinks.”

At the end of the year, when bonuses were announced, a friend of Ms. Bickford’s who worked in human resources told her how much that male colleague had received. “It was many multiples of what I made,” Ms. Bickford said. “He stayed there. I left.”

It was a Monday in late January, and Ms. Bickford was at a table with four other women in a semiprivate room at Kiki’s, a Greek restaurant in the Chinatown neighborhood in Manhattan. They included Gayl Johnson, a director of administration in New York City’s Department of Sanitation; Alix Keller, the director of product technology at Hello Alfred, a home concierge service; Melissa Robbins, a Philadelphia-based political strategist; and Kimberly Webster, formerly a lawyer at a New York firm.

The women were of different backgrounds, ages and professions, but they had one thing in common: All said they had experienced gender-based wage discrimination over the course of their careers.

Though the pay gap has long been in the public consciousness — on average, American women make 80 cents for every dollar men make — three recent incidents have brought renewed scrutiny to an issue many women in the workplace say they continue to confront on an almost daily basis..

Early last month, Debra Messing and Eva Longoria chastised E! on the Golden Globes red carpet for paying Catt Sadler, the former co-host of E! News, half of what her male colleague, Jason Kennedy, made. (Ms. Sadler left the network in December.) The next day, Carrie Grace, the former China editor of the BBC, resigned that position after salary figures released by the broadcaster showed a gap between male and female talent.

And, of course, there is the perhaps the most famous recent incident — the revelation that Michelle Williams was paid $80 a day for reshoots on “All the Money in the World” while her male co-star, Mark Wahlberg, was paid $1.5 million in total (he later donated it to charity, following an outcry) — that got many women in offices around the country swapping tales of when in their own careers they found out they were being paid less than their male counterparts and what they did (or did not do) about it.

“I never really complained about the pay discrepancy,” Ms. Bickford, 76, said, pausing between bites of moussaka. “I was brought up in a culture where it was considered gauche.”

“I missed that class,” said Ms. Johnson. (Age? “You can say ‘55 plus.’”) Ms. Johnson, who was sitting diagonally across from Ms. Bickford, took a bite of her lamb chop. “I’ve been doing this job for over 20 years,” Ms. Johnson said. “I started as a clerk and worked my way up. I’ve had five promotions. But my white male counterparts earn $25,000 to $30,000 more a year than I do.”

Ms. Johnson is one of 1,000 women on whose behalf a local union filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2013, claiming that the city paid women and minorities substantially less than their white male colleagues. In 2015, the E.E.O.C. ruled in favor of the women and recommended that the city negotiate a payout. The suggested starting point was $246 million. Though the city and the union came to a broad agreement last April, the details are still being worked out.

To help the union build its case, Ms. Johnson spent years gathering information. And she was not shy about demanding her rights. Once, she said, she called a supervisor and asked why she was making less than a male counterpart. The answer, she said: “He has a family to support.”

Ms. Johnson is a single mother of three. Her experience is one example of what’s called the motherhood penalty, a term for the economic and career setbacks women experience when they have children. (Men’s earnings went up by more than 6 percent when they had children, if they lived with them, and women’s decreased 4 percent for each child they had, a study found. And research has shown that employers rate fathers as the most desirable employees.)

Ms. Keller, 35, is raising a 9-year-old son alone. “I’ve made about 40 percent less than a colleague that’s maybe only a tiny level above me, someone I didn’t report to,” Ms. Keller said. “I’ve been in a situation where a male colleague was making 100 percent more. I almost died inside.”

Next to Ms. Keller was Ms. Robbins. “The last campaign I was working on, I told my campaign manager, ‘We’re going to lose if we do this your way,’” said Ms. Robbins, who declined to provide her age. “Sixty-five percent of my salary was cut. My leadership as a black woman meant nothing to them.”

Ms. Robbins described another job in sales where she asked for a raise, from $14 an hour, after bringing in a major client. According to Ms. Robbins, the company’s owner refused. After quitting, Ms. Robbins said, a man was hired to replace her. His salary? More than twice as much. “That was the most humiliating experience that I have ever had,” she said.

Sitting across from Ms. Robbins was Ms. Webster, 36, who says she left the law firm she was working for in 2016 after she wrote a letter to the partners suggesting that they were acting out unconscious bias. “At least for one case, and it may have been for multiple cases, my time was being billed out at a lower rate than two of the three white, male paralegals,” Ms. Webster said. “The very next business day, I got put on a performance improvement plan,” she added. “They were putting the paperwork in motion to either justify firing me or getting me to leave.”

Retaliatory practices toward employees who complain about discrimination are far from abnormal. The E.E.O.C. reported that 48.8 percent of the complaints filed by workers in 2017 contained an allegation of retaliation.

Toward the end of the evening, entrees were forgotten and talk turned to the current moment and the future. “I believe we’re at a tipping point,” Ms. Bickford said. “The computer has really helped us disseminate information, and I think men are on notice now.” Ms. Bickford and her colleagues in the business world have formed the Paradigm for Parity, which provides a five-step plan for gender equality that they have persuaded dozens of corporate leaders to implement.

Ms. Robbins was recently one of the speakers at the Women’s March in Philadelphia and is working to help elect more female leaders. And Ms. Johnson plans to stick around in city administration and in the union as long as she can. “We have to look out for the ones who follow behind us,” Ms. Johnson said. “There are more battles to be fought. Everyone deserves a chance.”

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