Pay equity: You can't get there on a free lunch

This week, columnist Mike Causey spotlights the need for real pay equity—finally—for women in the workplace. The Biden administration is pushing for it, but will we ever get past the bad old days of unequal salaries except for an occasional extra perk?

The Biden administration's new pay-equity-for-women in government drive caused me to have a flashback. According to some sources women on average earn about 81 cents for every one dollar paid to men.  Whether that is high, or low, it is almost certainly true that women, by and large, are often paid less than men doing the same job.  A new study, for example, shows there are indeed major problems—from unequal pay to sexual harassment—within the federal judiciary's 30,000 employees.  But, as far as going into that here, that’s for now and the future. 

Back to my flashback.

When I was 17 I got a job as a messenger at a major newspaper. I probably shouldn't reveal its name. But it had a Post in it. (Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge!)

Good job for a kid out of high school with no prospect of college. Also, it was a fascinating time to be in a fascinating place with so many smart people.

As anybody who knows business, whatever it is, the people who keep it afloat are the ones who get most of the publicity and are the public face of the outfit. Like reporters and editors are at newspapers. Especially back in the day when people actually read them (ahem). And they were, then, often the primary source of news for most people. No, the people who made it possible were (and still are) the sales staff. They don't get the praise or the publicity. But they bring in the dollars used to pay reporters and columnists the big (relatively speaking) bucks. As it is now, so it was then.

Anyhow I worked with lots of people in the newspaper’s advertising staff. And got to know most of the salespeople. All male, except for one remarkable woman I got to know, and appreciate later on. She was the only female on the staff. And a big drinker. Many people in sales were (this was the era depicted in Mad Men) because lunches were on expense account.  And often mostly liquid.

I learned much later that the lone saleswoman (call her Joan) had a daughter.  She may have been a war widow. Anyhow, there was no Mr. Jane around.  And she had to work.

When hired for the sales staff (she had proven herself in the clerical ranks) it was with the understanding at the time that women weren't paid as much as men. They didn't need it.  Or shouldn't need it. Not like men. Even at very liberal newspapers. So, Jane got the job with the understanding she would only be paid a little over half the regular salary for salesMEN. Again, that was the way of the world. 

To make up for her reduced salary (and benefits) the deal was that most days, schedule permitting, one of the salesMEN would take Jane to lunch. And expense it. He would put his and her lunch on his expense account. Joan, I suspect, learned she might as well enjoy her off-the-table compensation as much as possible. I don't know if she ordered extra, picked the most expensive stuff or took rolls and desert back to her daughter. But she got three to five lunches, drinks included, per week for many years. It was part of her pay package. But, actually, without pay.

Like most of the salesMEN, Jane could hold her liquor. And I mean as in Bourbon, Scotch, Martinis, Manhattans. Wine, then at our level, was for wimps. The drinking class drank the hard stuff. And lots of it. People returned from lunch, well, different somehow. Often happier. It was so common nobody paid any attention. No red flares. It was the norm. Especially for people who had been through the Great Depression, then World War 2, then Korea. The Greatest Generation.  Which ran on 86 proof.

Cut to the chase. Jane became an alcoholic. Not diagnosed maybe, but we knew the signs. It happened to so many.

Jane got "pay equity.” Of a sort.  But maybe not the best kind. Not the kind that would have benefited her child. Or her pension—if there even was one! Much like my Mother, a single parent who started as a GS-2 at the Pentagon. (And she didn't get free drinks for lunch. At least not as part of her compensation package.) But I get it. What she and Jane and many other women got. Which was half-a-loaf-and-consider yourself lucky! I get what they didn't get.

So, if the administration pushes for pay equity 21st century style, I'm for it. Whether it is a political, or a genuine effort—or both. It’s worth another shot.

Been there, done that.

NEXT STORY: Ukraine will refocus civil service

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