When Mary Alice Cox worked the cash register in the garden department of Wal-Mart, she earned less than $7 an hour. But the young man who worked by her side, watering the plants and moving loads of mulch, once told her that he earned more than $8 an hour.
Now, the 59-year-old Florida resident who no longer works for the world's largest retailer is hoping to sue Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for sexual discrimination -- and she might get her chance. A federal judge in California last week turned a discrimination case against Wal-Mart, originally filed by six women, into a class action lawsuit that includes 1.6 million of the company's current and former employees.
"I never made $7 an hour in all those years," said Cox, who worked at Wal-Mart for seven years. "I always thought there should be something done."
The Wal-Mart case is the largest civil rights class action in history to be filed against a private company. It alleges that females earned less than their male counterparts and received fewer promotions than men. While the class action might be groundbreaking, it brings into public debate the long-standing issue of sexual discrimination in the workplace.
From medical and legal professionals to restaurant cooks and store clerks, women typically earn less money than their male counterparts. Some say it is because, until recently, women often had less formal education than men or because women accumulated less work experience as a result of taking time off to raise children.
Others, however, argue that the reason is purely born of discrimination.
Experts do not dispute that a wage gap persists: A comparison of 1999 median salaries showed earnings of $110,000 for male dentists and $68,000 for female dentists; $70,000 for male pharmacists and $63,000 for female pharmacists; $17,000 for male cooks and $15,000 for female cooks; $20,000 for male teacher assistants and $15,000 for female teacher assistants, according to a wage gap study released last month by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Complaints to EEOC
About 6,000 complaints about wage discrimination are filed each year with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- between 7 percent and 8 percent of the organization's total caseload. The majority of those cases are filed by women who charge they are paid less than men while performing equal work, said David Grinberg, a spokesman for the EEOC, which enforces the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination at work.
"It's certainly a problem," Grinberg said. "Some people say that it's due to blatant discrimination. Other people say that it's due to career choices."
The wage gap has narrowed significantly since the 1980s. Women typically earned about 77 cents for every dollar that men earned in 2002, compared with 72 cents to the dollar in 1999, according to the Census Bureau.
Part of the reason for the shrinking wage gap is that the education gap is lessening: More women than men are entering college, and women are taking more classes that are better matches for the job market, said Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University.
In the late 1960s, women made up 5 percent of the people entering the field of law and 10 percent of those entering medicine. By 1998, women made up 48 percent of those going into law and 42 percent of people going into medicine. Today, the male-to-female ratio is almost on par, Goldin said.
Tending to family
But women are still a small minority in some of the occupations that pay well, such as public safety, the building trades and the computer industry, said Heidi Hartman, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington and co-author of a study on the wage gap.
"We think some of it is still due to discrimination," Hartman said. "That includes women and men working in different jobs, and the men's jobs are higher paid."
Also, women much more often than men interrupt their careers to handle family matters, whether raising children or caring for elderly parents. Those demands often arrive at critical junctures in their careers. A female lawyer, for instance, is likely to be up for partner and a female professor eligible for tenure during her 30s -- child-bearing years.
"Women are called on and respond more than men do -- that's just the way it is," Goldin said of family matters. "This is the classic issue that corporate America has been waking up to for the past 15, 20 years -- that there are institutional details that have to be changed if they're going to tap into what is clearly now 50 percent of their talent."
About half of the wage gap between men and women is explained by these "observable" factors: education, experience and number of hours, said Mahnaz Mahdavi, an associate professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and director of the school's program for women and financial independence. The "unobservable" factors that explain the rest of the wage gap include choice of occupation and discrimination.
Studies show that from 10 percent to 30 percent of the "unobservable" difference in the wage gap is simply explained by a gender difference, Mahdavi said.
"It's not because women have less education or experience," Mahdavi said. "Those [factors] together cannot explain fully the wage gap between male and female."
Sharlene Hesse-Biber, a sociology professor at Boston College, said the problem lies in companies' hiring and promotion practices and the fact that they don't recognize women must combine their work and family lives.
"There are factors at work that create an environment, a culture of discrimination, for women," Hesse-Biber said. "It's in the process, in the culture of the workplace, a workplace that was set up by men, run by men, and now women are entering the ranks."
Women's advocacy groups argue that the economic effects have been staggering.
The Institute for Women's Policy Research estimated that in 1999, the wage differential cost the average family with a working woman $4,000 a year -- enough to pay for a year of education at a community college, several months of groceries or improved medical or child care. The total cost to the economy was about $200 billion, the institute estimated.
Impact on retirement
Also, women who choose to work less and stay home to raise a family end up with a smaller retirement fund than their husbands, leaving them in a financial bind if the couple divorces or the women is widowed. About 50 percent of women enter retirement without a husband, and 20 percent of those single women end up living in poverty, said Hartman of the Institute for Women's Policy Research .
"Women working a little less and earning less is kind of the way most families get through the child-bearing years," Hartman said. "But it seems to have a permanent impact on women's earnings."
A sample of median earnings in 1999 for men and women*:
Job Men Women
Astronomer / physicists $71,000 $51,000
Cooks $17,000 $15,000
Dentists $110,000 $68,000
Dishwashers $14,000 $12,000
Lawyers $90,000 $66,000
Maids and housekeeping cleaners $19,000 $15,000
Optometrists $84,000 $65,000
Pharmacists $70,000 $63,000
Physicians and surgeons $140,000 $88,000
Teacher assistants $20,000 $15,000
* Earnings are not adjusted for experience and education level
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000
Past discrimination cases and settlements:
* Year of settlement: 2001
* Amount of settlement: $2.2 million
* Charge: Paying a female worker less than her male counterparts, subjecting her to different terms of employment because of her sex and firing her for complaining about being discriminated against.
Baltimore Cable Access Corporation
* Year of settlement: 2000
* Amount of settlement: $45,000
* Charge: Firing a female manager after she complained about being paid less than her male counterparts.
Swift Transportation Co. Inc. of Arizona
* Year of settlement: 2000
* Amount of settlement: $450,000
* Charge: Paying six female managers less than their male counterparts.
Voice of America
* Year of settlement: 2000
* Amount of settlement: $508 million
* Charge: Not hiring female workers.
* Year of settlement: 1997
* Amount of settlement: $104 million
* Charge: Paying women less than men and not hiring, training or promoting women.
Source: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and media reports
Are you a victim of discrimination?
Here's how to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:
Call 202-663-4900 or TTY (deaf or hearing impaired) 202-663-4494.
To find the closest EEOC office in your area, call 1-800-669-4000 or go to www.eeoc.gov