Social Security's gender gap

This is addressed to all readers, but especially young women, who are enjoying prime working years, developing skills, acquiring friends and contacts, and making money. You may be delighted with your income, even if it's not quite as high as you believe (or know) your male colleagues earn. You're probably not thinking about your "golden years," when much of your income may be a Social Security check. But here's why you should.

Many have forgotten that until the 1970s women had no access to real wealth, except through men. Even heiresses saw their money managed by male advisers. Remember the movie "How to Marry a Millionaire," with Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe? Each was in search of a man with money — a smart move, considering there were few other avenues open to them if they wanted to live in relative comfort. Women who married for money were disparagingly referred to as "gold-diggers," but the financial outlook was bleak for an unmarried woman. It was widely understood in the 1950s and 1960s that a woman in pursuit of a college education was really looking for her M-R-S degree.

Things have changed since then, but evidence abounds documenting the gap in pay. And even if women's pay were suddenly equal to men's, inequities will remain, because of the disparity many years ago. Here's what I mean. A senior citizen at last, I now receive Social Security. The amount of the monthly check is directly proportional to what I have paid into the system over the course of my working life.

The government's website says: Social Security benefits are typically computed using "average indexed monthly earnings." This average summarizes up to 35 years of a worker's indexed earnings. We apply a formula to this average to compute the primary insurance amount. The PIA is the basis for the benefits that are paid to an individual.

This sounds fair, but when I entered the workplace in the late 1960s, just about the only jobs available for women in my socio-economic bracket were secretary, teacher and nurse, and these were not high-paying professions. Choices available to women in lower economic classes paid even less.

If you wanted a job, you turned to the newspaper, where classified ads were divided: "Help Wanted — Male" and "Help Wanted — Female." Higher paying jobs were largely off limits to women. I recall walking into an international organization in 1969, armed with my newly minted master's degree in languages, only to be told, "We hire women only for secretaries, and you're over-qualified." This wasn't happening to the young men who were my classmates.

I was offered a job in textbook publishing (a notorious female ghetto then, where an educated woman could wait for a husband). I chose instead to teach in a private school, which I enjoyed a lot, even though the salary was a pittance. I gradually worked my way into more remunerative fields, often working as an independent contractor, deriving income from a variety of sources, including occasional teaching assignments.

Fast forward, and today, my Social Security check covers my mortgage and my co-op's maintenance. If I want to eat, I must work. As it happens, I enjoy my work and would not have embraced a life of leisure even if my income were greater. Men my age, however, have not had to make that choice.

The Social Security/pension angle should be included in women's fight for equitable pay. Even if we've come a long way, inequities persist in the most insidious fashion and will leave women at a level lower than male colleagues years from now. In other words, our efforts to ensure equal pay for equal work will be subverted if we are not attentive to all facets of the picture. Equal pay today only partially offsets historical inequities, and we must know this, lest guilty consciences be assuaged by partial solutions.

Mary Jane Wilkie works as an independent contractor in New York City, deriving much of her income from recruitment of non-profit executives. Her email is workbycontract@nyc.rr.com.

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