The $500,000 You Should Get – But Won’t

What if you knew that you’d lost half a million dollars because someone didn’t pay you your fair share of your salary?  What would be your next step?

I just spoke with 15 young women in their twenties about pay inequality. What do you think, I asked, when you realize that women get less than men for the same job? They looked at me with that wry “What else is new?” look I’ve become familiar with when discussing issues that are as deep in our culture as the minerals in our bones. It’s a bored look, like “How lame is that?”…but it’s not an outraged look. I KNOW you don’t like it and don’t think it’s fair, I went on, hoping to touch on some fury, but what do you feel when you realize that you constitute the majority of the workforce, but get 77 cents for every dollar a man gets for your same job? That you’ve worked like hell to get to the finish line only to find that it’s about a fourth farther on that men’s finish line.  And that economists estimate that your unwillingness to assert your own worth costs each of you about $500,000 in earnings by the time you reach 60?

“I haven’t had that experience yet,” a new lawyer said. “I haven’t had it that starkly presented, where, like, I share an office with someone who makes $100,000 and I make $77,000. So I’m still filled with that half-pissed-off/ half grateful- to- be -in- the- firm feeling.”

“You mean, the ‘I should be happy I’ve gotten THIS far’ feeling?” another woman asked. “‘Cause I know that feeling. And I also know it’s a way of tamping down the outrage.”

Yes, it is. It’s what Catholicism’s meek-inheriting-the-earth has communicated to third-world workers. A Mexican businessman fighting for the pay rights of other workers once told me that that attitude, more than anything else, keeps Mexican businessmen from fighting harder to get to the top. “What do you say about aggression and ambition to a man who believes God loves him more if he’s poor and meek than if he’s assertive and proud?”

Exactly what we’ve said, in effect, about ambition and pride to young women. It’s not religion that makes them so afraid of being aggressive, it’s the whole culture that’s given them the message.

Young women, don’t buy into this. Don’t be so grateful to be working that you forget how valuable your work is. And if you don’t believe it’s as valuable as a man’s, then we need a new feminist movement. One that  says it all over again, and allows you to hear the numbers rather than a voice that says, as if it’s a religious voice,  “Thou who dost fight For Women are fighting Against Men.”

That $500,000 that you could have by the time you’re sixty if you fight for it now will come in very handy. A greater boon when you reach 65. Particularly since there are those fighting right now to see to it that you don’t get the retirement income you will have earned.

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