Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Today Is Equal Pay Day. If Only Women Got Equal Pay and Equal Opportunity. How About A Little Respect For Women Workers?

Women must work 110 more days per year than men do in order to equal what men earn in wages. Put differently, if men did not work from January 1 to today, but women did work full-time, and both groups worked full-time for the rest of the year, they would earn about the same. That is because women continue to be paid less money for their labor -- about 23% less on average, regardless of what job they do.

Women in this country continue to be treated with no respect. That is largely the result of the right-wing, the Republicans, and the religious right. The efforts to improve the status of women in this country, efforts promoted in the 1960s and 1970s, were under a full-scale assault by the time the 1980s rolled around. The right-wing always needs to divide working people: make the men bash the women, white bash the black, keep working people looking down on each other so they cannot organize, work together for their common good. Because the truth is that all working people deserve a fair shot.

Today is called Equal Pay Day.

But there's no point in just focusing on equal pay. I have hundreds of stories about women earning less than men for the exact same job. When I got my first full-time job out of law school, after graduating top of my class, magna cum laude, I was grateful to have a job and a paycheck. But within a few months I was called in by a partner and told I was already getting a raise. I was thrilled because I thought it must mean I was doing a terrific job. It wasn't a small raise -- it was a 20% raise in my salary.

Years later I became friends with the office manager in the firm, and she told me that she was the reason I got that raise. The firm told all potential employees that they paid 80% of whatever the highest-paying firms in the city were paying. They had always done that. But they had always hired men. I was the first female attorney hired in that firm. And they paid me 20% less than they had paid the men. When the office manager realized how low my pay was compared to the new-hires from the previous year, she confronted the partners and told them that they needed to increase my pay immediately or they would leave themselves open to a lawsuit. It was many years after the fact when I learned the truth, but I was still pretty shocked to see that their automatic impulse was to cheat me because I was female.

Years have gone by, and I have continued to practice law. What I have seen happen to the women in my graduating class makes me sad. Many of them left law altogether. Some of them married well, so they didn't have to work, and had the option to stay home. But that would be true for women in all professions, yet you do not see this massive disappearance of women from other fields such as teaching, medicine, or businesses. Some of them changed fields. Many of them simply disappeared, driven out of a profession that is fundamentally brutal in its demeaning and ridiculing and exclusionary attitude towards women. It isn't a question of the field being tough; it's a question of being verbally abused and assaulted by men who basically hate professional women, hate the fact that a woman attorney might beat them in court.

The local court system in the county where I live has 18% of the judges female. It has been that way for at least 15 years. Last year they hired 6 commissioners (like baby judges): 5 white men, 1 female (18%). Women are 50% of the community, 50% of the lawyers, but 18% of the judges. This is intentional discrimination.

The bread and butter of law is business and real estate work. Women are in particular kept out of those fields. Women are allowed to practice family law, or poverty law (where you can't make a living). But they are mostly excluded from the bread and butter practice -- the type of practice where you can actually earn a living.

I practice in a medium-sized community. When I moved here there were no women in business or real estate law. 15 years later, there's 1 besides me. This is not a coincidence. The exclusion is as high as a prison wall.

Women are excluded from the local firms after about 5 years. They may be hired out of law school, but they will be gone by 5 years. They are excluded from the courts other than as research attorneys, the lowest level job for attorneys inside the court. Research attorneys are 80% female; commissioners and judges are 80% male.

The young male attorneys who tend to be selected to become judges are not the smartest, not the best attorneys. I know many of them, and some are at best mediocre. Some of them have no trial experience -- they never had even one trial. Yet that is the work of a judge: to preside over trials. They are white and male, and that is the ticket. I have known women who applied to become judges, and Hispanic men and women who applied, and they were rejected based on absurd excuses or claims that they were not competent.

After 5 years, women simply disappear from the profession of law. They are not included in the male attorney breakfast groups, lunch groups, networking groups, poker games the judges hold at their homes for male attorneys, golf games the judges play with male attorneys. Dinner dates. Women are excluded altogether. Most of the work is directed by attorneys, from one to the next. Women are excluded from referrals as well.

So while I would welcome equal pay, I would welcome even more equal opportunity. The courts should start by moving towards 50% women as judges. They should let the old boys' networks in the local firms know clearly that if they fail to have women as 50% equity partners, they will not be favorably viewed in the courts.

When the primary institutions in our legal system are themselves guilty of systematic and deliberate racism and sexism, why bother passing laws saying that we should all be treated equally. Who are we kidding?

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