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September 29, 2023

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Years go by, and equality is still a challenge for working women

Almost ninety years ago a great victory was achieved for women’s suffrage with the passing of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Since that day in 1920 there has been no legal barrier in considering women as full citizens of our nation, entitled to all the rights and privileges as their male counterparts.

Today everybody, men and women alike, are told they can achieve their dreams if only they try hard enough and dedicate themselves to their quest. We are taught to believe employers will show no bias in their hiring and that opportunities of equal merit and worth are abound for both genders.

In many cases this is accurate, make no mistake, but in an alarming number of situations it’s not.

In anything as complex as gender equality, it’s difficult to measure objectively the situation at hand but there are a few ways of doing so. One way is to examine the statistics on salaries and wages, and these figures are disheartening to say the least. Nationally, a woman can expect to earn anywhere from 25 percent to 11 percent less than a male colleague, and these statistics account for factors such as education, experience and time off, including maternity leave. Women are also promoted to higher positions less frequently than men, worsening still the financial prospects of fully qualified female workers.

These sad situations are not limited to a few states or cities, but they exist right here in our state, in our proverbial backyards. In 1993, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of 150 female professors at Kent State University who were shown to have been passed over for promotion more frequently than male counterparts, and were shown to have been the unfortunate victims of salary inequality. In response to lobbying efforts an unbelievable sum of $23 million was allocated in Ohio’s general budget to adjust for salary inequalities in our state. And the Ohio General Assembly has strongly considered measures that make gender equality a requirement before public colleges and universities are eligible to receive the full allotment of their higher education funding.

Laws are in place to protect against gender discrimination, most public and private institutions hold themselves to standards of gender equality, and personal interactions between most people certainly do not seem to betray some hidden sexist ideology. Why, then, do inequalities persist in salaries and pay?

A study conducted by a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University sought this answer, and the results are quite revealing. According to the study, men are far more willing to negotiate for higher salaries than women, who were eight times more likely to settle for what they were offered. But the study also revealed the likely cause of this unwillingness to push for higher pay: women who did were penalized by their peers, oddly both men and women, who were less willing to work with them in the confines of the study.

Even when women were told they could negotiate for higher salaries, those who chose to do so were subtly harmed in the study, their actions judged by a socially accepted norm on how women are expected to behave. The idea that gender is a sufficient basis on which to discriminate is anachronistic to say the least, but the true difficulty lies in determining whether its perpetuation is the most disturbing aspect of this reality, or if that title goes to the na’ve and blind acceptance by much of society.

Many will no doubt declare in a full-throated defense of themselves that they do not discriminate against women, and in many cases this may be true. But it is only the truth to an extent because while personal beliefs are to be commended, unless they are translated into social awareness little change can be expected.

Our history books tell us that ours is a nation of personal liberty, where all people should receive their due justice. Half the population has for years fought to undo the patriarchal beliefs of the past and at last achieve true parity. But this cannot happen so long as people content themselves with personal, rather than public, critiques of this socialized discrimination.

Great battles have before in our history achieved equally great results for the civil rights and advancement of those unfairly made to suffer. Marches in the streets of Birmingham and forums on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial are hailed as examples of the power of speech and action, and the ability of men and women alike to change society.

Perhaps that is what we need today. We cannot wait for governments to pass laws, nor should we expect a statute to change a deeply ingrained custom. If we truly want results, if we long for justice, we must rise to that task ourselves.

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