Salary Bump Follows “Disgusting” Pay Discrimination

May 17, 2013

Ellie Setser and her female colleagues fought pay discrimination in the late 1970s with a series of anonymous complaints.

Setser worked in a research lab at a teaching hospital. The technicians in her lab were all women with college degrees. They learned that a male head technician in another lab at the same hospital — a much smaller lab with less responsibility — earned a salary 1.5 times larger than the female head technician in Setser’s lab. He didn’t have a college degree.

“It was unfair,” Setser said. “I thought it was disgusting.”

Setser was active at that time in trying to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and knew how the women in her lab could take action. She said several of them called in anonymous complaints to a Department of Justice pay discrimination hotline. They figured nothing would come of it, but soon they heard that lawyers were at the hospital looking at pay records, Setser said.

“We were astounded,” Setser said. “We heard about this and we were like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

The female technicians were even more shocked by what happened next. The woman who was head technician in their lab got a pay raise so that her salary matched the male head technician’s. The hospital started a classification system that instituted pay grades based on experience and education. Setser and the rest of the technicians in her lab got pay raises because of their college degrees. Previously, their pay was at the discretion of their research project’s principal investigator, who had received a grant from the federal government for the project.

The culture at that time explained part of the female technicians’ surprise at their victory. Setser said that then it was customary for a woman to be paid less than a man, and they didn’t expect action to be taken to rectify pay inequity. However, she doesn’t think the fight would necessarily be easier today — in part because of people’s attitudes and partially because of fear of retaliation from employers. Plus, the primary legislation that addresses gender pay discrimination, the Equal Pay Act, has not been updated since it was passed in 1963.

“People are a little more skeptical today,” Setser said. “We’ve got all these people with these excuses like women are more interested in raising their children or not as interested in progressing in their professions as men are. We have these apologists who are legitimizing pay inequity.”

Although their project’s principal investigator initially determined their salaries, Setser said he was very supportive of the complaint once he learned of the pay disparity with the other lab. Setser said his support enabled them to make the complaint without fear of retaliation or losing their jobs.

“Companies today are much more secretive about what they pay people, and they make it a matter of trust,” Setser said. “They say if you tell other people what you make, they will fire you.”

The Paycheck Fairness Act would protect employees from retaliation if they share their wages or ask about employers’ wage practices and would implement stronger deterrents designed to stop discrimination before it starts. However, Congress has failed to move the Paycheck Fairness Act forward. While this legislation is stalled, AAUW is asking President Barack Obama to address part of the Paycheck Fairness Act through an executive order that would ban federal contractors from firing or otherwise retaliating against workers who share salary information and wage practices.

This is the seventh post in AAUW’s series about women’s struggles to receive fair pay. Learn more about the pay gap and join AAUW in the fight for fair pay.

Elizabeth Owens By:   |   May 17, 2013

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