By Ali Follman
Above: Elizabeth Owens in her office at the American Association of University Women in Washington, D.C. Photo by Ali Follman.
There’s nothing quite like explaining to a college woman the reason why, once she graduates, she will be paid seven percent less than a man with the same college degree.
According to a study released by the American Association of University Women, the reason for this gap is complicated.
“People are often very quick to attribute the pay gap to women’s choices,” Elizabeth Owens said. “When girls are growing up, they aren’t encouraged in science and math as much as boys are…so they don’t go into STEM when they’re in college. There’s often things like bias that prevent women from wanting to stay in those majors.”
Elizabeth Owens is the political media manager responsible for communications of advocacy priorities at the AAUW. She’s a self-proclaimed social media guru who manages the AAUW Twitter accounts for advocacy around equal pay and other women’s issues. The AAUW works to achieve gender equality to improve the lives of women and their families. This effort starts with girls at a young age.
In college attendance, women have surpassed men but the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that women tend to choose less rigorous academic majors and therefore take different types of courses.
But even before women go to college, societal influences dissuade girls from going into educational programs for some of the highest paid fields including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
The pay gap is present in most professions, with women making an average of 78 cents to a man’s dollar. “It is hard to look at that and not see that there is discrimination at work,” Owens said.
According to the numbers, the pay discrimination worsens for women of color. “The gap widens so much when you look at African American women and Latinas and mothers,” Owens said. “The pay gap affects everyone but it doesn’t affect them equally.”
Women are paid less once they have children and face what Owens calls a “motherhood penalty,” or a salary disadvantage when employers learn a woman has children. On the other hand, men end up benefitting from having children, and will receive a pay boost, according to research from the AAUW.
Equal pay is not a gendered issue. It can affect all who rely on salary from the women in their lives. “The pay gap has really damaging effects on families,” Owens said. “It makes families struggle to make ends meet because they are relying on their mother’s income.”
Just like equal pay should not be a gendered issue, the AAUW says it should also not be a partisan issue. The Paycheck Fairness Act was shot down for the fourth time in the U.S. Senate in September. Senate Republicans denied the act that would impose tougher penalties for pay discrimination and strengthen equal pay laws at the federal level.
Before it was shot down, Republicans agreed to an open debate on the Paycheck Fairness Act, but then did not allow it to be put to a vote on the Senate floor. Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire did not support the recent Paycheck Fairness Act, although she had expressed interest and commitment to closing the wage gap in 2014. However, in a town hall meeting in May of 2013 she said, “Congress has done enough to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work.”
The last major legislation passed on the wage gap issue was the Equal Pay Act enacted under then President John F. Kennedy in 1963. “We didn’t anticipate that this was the end of legislation needed around equal pay,” Owens said. “So now it’s been 50 years but no legislation has been passed since then.”
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 made progress on equal pay lawsuits but Owens doesn’t consider it to be life changing legislation for women. It’s a stepping stone.
Owens is committed to helping women around the U.S. educate themselves on the wage gap and how they can personally act to close the gap. Since AAUW has chapters in each state, Owens works on AAUW’s proposed federal legislation surrounding equal pay and related activities around the country. She has worked with members of Congress and journalists to grow AAUW’s visibility and impact and creates content that recruits members of Congress and advocates to pay closer attention to priority issues for women and girls.
Owens grew up in Iowa and studied newspaper journalism at Drake University. As an undergraduate, she took one women’s studies course to fulfill a liberal arts requirement and said it was a major awareness-raising moment for her.
Following that course, she became interested in policy work and systemic change once she volunteered at a women’s shelter in Des Moines, Iowa. “It was horrifying for me to see that these women were working for minimum wage but trying to get back on their feet,” Owens said. “Knowing that minimum wage was never going to be able to provide them with a great quality of life.”
Afterward, she received her master’s degree through dual Public Policy and Women’s Studies Programs at the George Washington University and interned with the AAUW. She was soon hired full-time after graduation.
Her ultimate goal and the goal of the AAUW regarding equal pay is to ensure that all women to have an awareness that the gender gap exists and that the government can ensure that employees are aware of what they should be paid. “One of the things we’re really fighting for is transparency, which is so that you might be able to have a clue that the man sitting next to you is getting paid more than you are or better, knowing that the two of you are being paid equitably for your equal work,” Owens said.
Urging Congress to take action is one of the best ways people can get involved. AAUW sends out alerts to its 170,000 members and supporters when important issues come before Congress. It also provides tips on how to negotiate salary on its website because they believe being educated on the prevailing salary for the job at hand is essential.
Since the wage gap across the country only closed by one cent this year, Owens can’t see much closure in the wage gap in the future unless Congress passes new legislation. “[There’s] research on our website where I believe it’s another 124 years for the gap to close if we continue at the rate we’ve been going.”