Seattle's women are not worth less

Guest Opinion: Seattle has the worst gender pay gap of any major city in the U.S. It's time for city politicians to step up and commit to change.
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Guest Opinion: Seattle has the worst gender pay gap of any major city in the U.S. It's time for city politicians to step up and commit to change.

In Seattle, women are worth less — 27 percent less, to be exact — than men. At least that’s what you’d think if you looked at payrolls. Outraged? You should be. 

Nationally, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Since passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, the national gender pay gap has been narrowing, but it only budges about a half cent a year. And in Seattle, the needle barely creeps. Women in Seattle are paid 73 cents for every dollar that a man earns here — the worst pay gap of any metropolis in the country. This is not an insignificant number. That amounts to a yearly salary discrepancy of $16,346. Think what that much extra could mean to a single mom.

The National Partnership for Women & Families figures that, if paid the same as a man, a woman employed full time in Seattle could afford to pay for 89 more weeks of food, buy 3,000 more gallons of gas and pay for seven additional months of rent.

The Seattle wage gap is bad news for the 141,000 households in the region headed by women. It’s unsurprising and frustrating that 32,000 of those households are below the poverty line. 

For those of us of mature age, the distressing news that Seattle women are paid less than the guys does not come as a great surprise. It’s something we’ve lived with.

Over my working years, I have experienced the pay differentials. Although for most of my newspaper career I was lucky enough to work in a unionized industry — and let’s hear it for unions that understand women’s worth — there still were discrepancies.

When I worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I) as a city columnist in the 1980s and 90s, I received a six-year reporter’s union wages — but not the extra pay typically paid to male columnists, especially those who wrote about sports and politics. 

Four of the P-I’s male columnists received considerably more take-home pay than I did. In fact, it was only when I left the P-I to work for the Seattle Times that I achieved parity with my male colleagues. And I achieved that goal only by making wage-equality a dealbreaking condition before I would consider leaving the newspaper that had given me my start as a columnist.

It’s difficult to bargain one's wages individually and it was probably even harder for those of us working in the newsroom in those pre-blogosphere days. At the time, most of us were so fond of the newsroom where women had only just achieved a seat, much less parity, that we’d have worked for next to nothing.

All that said, the important question to examine about the gender pay gap is “Why?” And why in progressive, forward-thinking Seattle would women receive less than in the other 50 major metropolitan areas in the country?

The local gap can’t all be about education because Seattle women have as good, if not better, educational background. It probably isn’t about a dearth of unions either, since Seattle has long been known as a good union town, although as we know, the high-tech industries have yet to embrace collective bargaining. And that may be a partial answer to the mystery of women’s lost wages. The region has a lot of tech workers and, at least locally, they’ve not been in the forefront of closing the gender gap.

Seattle’s boards of directors customarily have only included a token woman or two. Sure, there are women CEOs. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. Boeing and the city’s high-flying aerospace industry seldom list women in executive ranks. The same is true of local engineering, architectural and financial industries. 

Conversely, in looking at the region’s large number of nonprofits, many of those have women in leadership roles. Sadly, although women have been a force in bettering life in the region, they have not commanded the higher salaries that are paid to male executives. There’s something about running a nonprofit that seems to require leaders who work for others, not for self. 

The question about Seattle’s gender pay gap recently was asked of the city’s candidates for mayor. Most of those who answered, while well-intentioned, did not go far enough. Only City Councilmember Bruce Harrell had the wits to quickly respond that he would refer the question to the Seattle Women’s Commission, a group he oversees. This is good idea. However, it still lacks specifics.

Candidates should talk about what we can do to promote economic security for women and families. At the national level, the Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and help women fight wage discrimination. But, given the dysfunction in DC, how about enacting some of the Act’s provisions at the local level? 

The City should look at putting gender-based discrimination on equal footing with other forms of wage discrimination, allowing legal action to pursue damages. How about requiring employers to prove that pay differences exist for legitimate, job-related reasons? Or creating a negotiation skills training program for women and girls? 

And, while on the stump, a would-be mayor ought to highlight the numbers of strong women who would become part of his or her administration. One of our recent past mayors, Greg Nickels, had a laudable record of hiring women for important jobs. 

Things are changing, but it still often seems to be a man’s world and a man’s paycheck. Come on, Seattle. We can do better. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.