Annie Houle of The WAGE project holding a 77 cent 'bill' against a dollar to represent the gender wage gap.
Colby senior Lindsay Peterson just got a job offer as a market analyst. It's not a real job offer, but part of a role-playing exercise withother students in a Colby lecture room. "And based on the experience that I have, I think that I would be at least at the median, if not the higher end of that," she says.
Peterson has a specific salary range as a goal, but her pretend employer, Abbott Matthews, offers initial resistance. "I'm offering you at the lower end of the salary range because you are just a graduating student," Abbott tells her. "You know, you haven't really had any full-time work experience."
And if this were an actual negotiation, there would be a million dollars at stake. That's not the salary Peterson is asking for--it's the amount of money she could lose over her lifetime if she doesn't negotiate what she's worth.
"That first salary, and why it's so critical to negotiate that, is that's where you start," says Annie Houle, who is with The WAGE Project. "So when you go from that job to the next, that's where you started, and so then you're way behind the eight ball, and it begins to build and build over the years."
The WAGE Project is a national non-profit dedicated to ensuring that women get paid fairly. Houle, who organized the training at Colby, says that, on average, white women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. For minorities, it's even worse -- 69 cents for African American women, 57 cents for Latinos.
And Annie Houle says the disparities have increasingly important consequences as the workforce changes.
"We have more working women than we do have working men in this country now, and a lot of them are the breadwinners," she says. "So if they're not being paid what the man in the house might have been making, you're supporting the house on 77 cents to the dollar as opposed to the entire dollar. So it's really no longer just a women's issue--it's really an issue that affects us all."
So, what's behind this wage gap? Equal pay laws were first put on the books in the '60s, and for awhile, the gender wage gap narrowed. But it leveled off in the '80s and '90s, and now it's stagnant.
"What it boils down to is there is some bias that still exists, and I don't think it's overt," says Peaches Bass, a program specialist with the State Workforce Investment Board who also specializes in women's workforce issues for the Maine Department of Labor.
Beyond the cultural forces at play, Bass points to a few specific reasons for the wage gap: First, many women don't research how much they could, or should, earn at a job. Women also tend to accept the salary they're offered, while men negotiate something higher.
And that leads us to a third problem: Women often don't know how to negotiate. And that takes us back to the Colby training session.
Lindsay Peterson: "We just came to an agreeement."
Abbott Matthews: "Ok, so we're going to accept $53,000 with $22,000 in bene--well, now benefits are going to be a little bit more..."
After going back and forth for a few minutes, armed with the knowledge of what she should earn and highlighting her skills, student Lindsay Peterson negotiates a higher salary and more benefits with her pretend new boss, classmate Abbott Matthews. Despite her success, Peterson says the experience was intimidating.
"I don't know. It's good to practice it because I had no idea how to bring it up and what to say or kind of how to approach it," Peterson says. "I mean, if it was intimidating in a situation with just a classmate in the mock thing, it's definitely going to be intimidating when it's a superior and you're in a job interview. So it's definitely something that was good to practice."
Her classmate Abbott Matthews works in the Career Center at Colby, and says through her job she has a good sense of employment opportunities. But she's not as confident about negotiating a salary. Matthews says the training taught her not to take things personally.
"When you go into a negotiation, understanding that you are arguing for the job and you're not arguing for your person--that makes the perspective completely different, I think," Matthews says. "It's not about you as a woman, it should be about you as an employee."
If Matthews puts her new negotiating skills to work in the real world, she and other graduating women could start to narrow the gender wage gap again.
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Photo by Patty Wight.