It’s a problem that continues to pervade all industries, across the world. From doctors to restaurant workers, from Hollywood to Washington, from Wall Street to Main Street and beyond: women of all ages and all education levels are consistently paid less than their male colleagues and peers. In the U.S, women still earn an average of 80 cents on the dollar—an increase of less than a half cent per year since passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. In the current White House, men are paid 37 percent more than their female colleagues.
Introducing a panel that included BBC journalist and former China editor Carrie Gracie, restaurant worker advocate and president/co-founder of ROC International Saru Jayaraman, and activist/first lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, NBC legal correspondent Cynthia McFadden facilitated a passionate discussion of why the gender pay gap is bad business all around—and what women can do now to make sure they get their fair share.
Gracie opened with a personal story of blatant discrimination from one of the world’s most respected news organizations. Less than a year ago, she discovered that despite her 30 years of experience and her status as one of the BBC’s top China experts, she was still earning almost 50 percent less than her male counterparts in other foreign bureaus. “They told me I’m brilliant,” she said, “but they won’t pay me like a man.”
Gracie resigned her post in the China bureau and dedicated herself to the task of fighting back. She remains employed by the BBC—“They wouldn’t dare fire you now!” McFadden joked—but now spends her time navigating complicated legislation, archaic bureaucracy, and a deeply entrenched culture of non-disclosure that surrounds matters of salary in the U.K. It’s an arduous and emotionally draining journey, even for a seasoned journalist. But when the BBC made her a counter-offer as China editor—still less than what they were paying top male journalists—Gracie refused: “I wanted them to understand that, for me, it’s not about the money anymore. It’s about the principles, of equality and instigating real, systemic change for this and future generations of women.”
In 2001, Saru Jayaraman co-founded the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United to advocate for the almost 13 million Americans who work in the restaurant industry, more than half of whom are women. Despite their significant contributions, the vast majority of restaurant workers are paid a sub-minimum wage: just $2.13/hour in all but seven states. Not surprisingly, restaurant workers are three times as likely to live below the poverty limit.
Workers are expected to supplement their salaries via a precarious flow of tips—a practice, Jayaraman said, that began as a ploy by restaurant owners after the Civil War to hire freed slaves but not pay them anything. Most restaurant workers today still subsist on a “literal slave wage,” she argued. Women in the restaurant industry face the highest levels of sexual harassment in any industry, yet their dependency on tips often leaves them with no option but to quietly withstand it. “When a woman doesn’t earn enough, that contributes to feelings of low-self worth as well,” said Jayaraman. “But when a woman earns a full wage, she is empowered” and can stand up for herself.
Jayaraman cites the 2016 election, as well as the #TimesUp groundswell, as factors that have inspired change. A number of notable restaurateurs, among them Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio, have joined her in calling for a living wage. She even took her mission to the red carpet as one of the activists invited to the Golden Globes this year in recognition of the #TimesUp initiative. (Her date was Amy Poehler.)
As the first lady of New York City, as well as a longtime mental health and children’s rights advocate, Chirlane McCray is in a unique position to advise women on how they can actively enforce legislation governing equal pay—and hold their employers accountable. Speaking specifically to recent “game-changing” legislation that now makes it illegal for employers to ask about salary history, McCray praised the law for its emphasis on forcing employers to pay workers according to “what the job is worth,” not simply “what someone earned before.” For women especially this is a powerful—and empowering—concept. If employers push back, employees can appeal to the New York City human rights commission. Fines for non-compliance can reach as high as $250,000.
With more women in positions of political power in New York City now than ever before, the city also has legislated universal pre-K and one of the most progressive state-mandated parental leave plans in the country. “We can’t rely on men alone to make the changes,” McCray said. “They won’t do so as quickly, or to the necessary extent.”
The discussion ended with mention of the ever-present “motherhood gap,”specifically a recent article in the New York Times demonstrating that if women have children between the ages of 25 and 35—when most women have children—their salary never recovers. Gracie, Jayaraman and McCray all agreed that regardless of how women choose to manage their fertility, the playing field is not equal. “We spend our lives being torn [between work and home], and end up feeling inadequate at everything,” Gracie said.
Perhaps time is finally up. “We [women] are the majority!” McCray said. “If we want something, we just need to stand together and insist!”
Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.
Additional reporting by Kristyn Martin.