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Is the Wage Gap Getting Wider

   Article by Ellen Alcorn

It's no secret that men have typically earned more money in the workplace than women. However, a new report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, may surprise some people. The new report seems to show that the gap, far from narrowing, has actually grown considerably in the past five years.

The study looked at full-time managers in the entertainment, communications, finance, insurance and retailing industries, and found that between 1995 and 2000, the gap grew by 21 cents for each dollar earned. Moreover, the study shows that while women make up nearly half the workforce, only 12 percent make it to the rank of corporate officer.

Some are skeptical of the report's findings. "I take these reports with a grain of salt," says Elizabeth Owens, manager of state and government affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) based in Alexandria, Virginia. "They don't always provide a complete picture of the actual status of wages in the workplace." According to Owens, one of the study's flaws is that it doesn't take into account factors such as levels of responsibility or number of years on the job.

Still, she says, even if it is flawed, "the value of this study is that it really serves as a powerful reminder that all employers need to take a close look at their pay practices." If the study isn't enough, there is legislation pending in Congress that, if passed, will serve as a powerful incentive.

The Equal Pay Act, signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, called for employers to offer equal pay for equal work. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would allow people who feel they are being paid a discriminatory wage to sue employers for punitive and compensatory damages, is now pending. If the bill becomes law, employees would be able to collect damages for pay discrimination far in excess of any other types of workplace discrimination lawsuits. The bill, in an attempt to redress the fact that occupations traditionally dominated by women, such as teaching and nursing, pay less than other occupations, also calls for the Secretary of Labor to establish guidelines for employers to match wages for comparable jobs across industries.

Owens says that if one looks at discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, pay discrimination is not a rampant problem. Still, it is vital for human resources managers to take a close look at their pay practices and make sure their companies are not setting arbitrary wage rates.

John Dantico, a member of the SHRM compensation committee, offers this as means of rectifying any potential problems a human resources manager might find in a company's pay practices: Put aside annual increases and instead offer an accelerated cycle of performance reviews. That way, employers can offer more frequent pay increases until everyone is at the proper level. He cautions that the worst thing managers can do is to assume that wage disparities will remain undetected. "Wages are never a secret," he says.

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