Despite significant advancements in women's salaries, pay disparities persist between men and women, evidenced by the oft-cited statistic that women workers earn 80 percent of their male peers' earnings.
This measure is based on 2015 median income estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. But Maryland, and this region more broadly, boast slightly more favorable outlooks for women workers, according to the same measurement of earnings.
In the D.C. metro region, which includes parts of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, women earned 82 percent of what men make, according to 2015 Census data. And in Maryland, a woman earned 83 cents to a man's dollar, the data showed.
A Frederick County lawmaker aims to close that gap further by prohibiting companies with 15 or more employees from seeking an applicant’s salary history before a job offer is extended. Specifically, the bill says salary history cannot be required as a condition of being interviewed; continuing to be considered for an offer of employment; an offer of employment; or an offer of compensation.
The bill sponsored by Delegate Karen Lewis Young, D-District 3A, passed in the House of Delegates 94-7 this week.
If women and minorities are historically paid less, one way to balance pay scales could be to take past salaries off the negotiating table, Lewis Young said.
Explaining the stats
The Census Bureau's measure of median income is widely cited when discussing gender pay disparity. It's a good benchmark, particularly to compare current disparities to historical ones, according to Erin George, an assistant economics professor at Hood College who studies gender disparities in the labor market.
But the measurement, like most data, doesn't tell the whole story.
It doesn't differentiate the income gap across different races and ethnicities, for example. This is an important distinction because minority women face an even larger income gap, George said.
The statistic also doesn't take into account what George termed "occupational segregation" — namely, women tend to work in industries and jobs that pay less than some other fields.
Males dominate the legal profession, for example. Female lawyers comprise just 35.2 percent of lawyers nationwide, according to a Census Bureau report published Thursday.
Females who enter legal occupations, which include more than just lawyers, also face a larger wage gap. Frederick County women in legal occupations made 66.4 percent of what their male peers did in 2015, Census Bureau data shows.
Leslie Powell, a managing partner with Powell Flynn law firm in downtown Frederick, said she has never considered herself a victim of pay discrimination because of her sex. She knew how much her male coworkers made, even before she opened her own firm, and said salaries were based upon experience and performance.
"You didn't get special dispensation as a man or a woman," she said.
She also didn't think the legal field in Frederick County was dominated by men, nor that her male peers had any kind of advantage over her because of their gender.
In contrast to that for legal professions, data about library science indicates a female majority. In 2015, 80.7 percent of librarians nationwide were women, Census Bureau data showed.
A female-dominant field may also affect the earnings in favor of women. Frederick County women in teaching, training and library occupations earned 106 percent of their male peers in 2015, according to Census data.
Sheila McDuff, associate director for public services for Frederick County Public Libraries, has worked alongside mostly women since earning her master's degree in library science 16 years ago. Her academic programs for the degree were also dominated by female students, she said.
But like Powell, she named experience and education as the driving forces behind pay, not gender. Public libraries are usually government-run institutions — the Frederick County library system falls under the umbrella of county government — which means income is set by a regulated scale based on education and experience.
George also named years of experience as a variable not considered in the blanket statistics on the gender pay gap, as well as factors such as marital status and education levels.
Even accounting for these variables, though, about half of the wage gap remains, George said.
[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]
The unseen barrier
The glass ceiling is defined by the United States Federal Glass Ceiling Commission as "the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements."
Among the chief causes for the glass ceiling is something George termed the "mommy penalty."
Women with children might see earnings decrease, while men with children experience pay increases because of inherent bias that motherhood and professional responsibilities somehow conflict.
This assumption features most prominently among occupations with demanding, hectic schedules such as legal and business professions, George said. Lawyers seldom have the option to work fewer hours, or on a part-time basis.
Powell agreed that long hours were a requirement for her job.
"You don't hear about a lawyer who works 10 hours a week," she said.
But demanding hours didn't dissuade Powell from giving up her career to be a mother. She did both.
The mother of two had her first child the same year she made partner at her firm. Two weeks after giving birth, she was in D.C. for a meeting. Asked if she felt like she faced bias as a mother in a demanding career, she said "possibly. But I just did it."
Other careers better accommodate women who want to work part-time, or take time off. George named pharmacists as one example, particularly those who work for corporations such as CVS that offer rotating pharmacists behind the counter.
"When I go to get a prescription, I don't care if it's the same pharmacist I saw before or not," she said.
McDowell said she knew many women in library occupations who took time off to have children. Some, like her, came back immediately at the end of their allocated maternity leave.
Those who waited longer before returning to their workforce weren't penalized though, she said. "As long as you still have the skills you need to do the job, in my experience it doesn't make much of an impact," she said.
Sexual harassment and hostility can also play a role in the glass ceiling effect. Wall Street, for example, is known as an unfriendly environment toward women, George said.
The prospect of facing workplace harassment and hostility may dissuade women from entering those fields altogether, keeping them more male-dominated.
The "lean in" factor highlighted in Sheryl Sandberg's book by the same name might also affect women's earnings compared to men. Sandberg in the book argues that women need to "lean in" to their own advancement by advocating for raises and negotiating salaries. Sandberg also challenges women to face the fear of being perceived as bossy.
Leveling the playing field
George heralded Lewis Young's bill as an important step toward closing the pay gap.
If passed into law, the bill would put Maryland among a small group of states and cities that have passed similar measures, including California, Massachusetts, New York and Philadelphia. Lewis Young said the measure is perceived by womens’ groups as the second-strongest measure in the country, behind Massachusetts.
Lewis Young said the bill will help ensure that lower wage levels for women and minorities are not perpetuated when employees are required to reveal past compensation.
“Your current compensation shouldn’t be based on a past or irrelevant position,” Lewis Young said.
Employers who have job openings, Lewis Young said, know the amount they’re willing to pay for the position without knowing ahead of time the past wages of any applicants. That’s what should drive salaries, she said.
“If you pay people what they’re worth, what the job requires, you get good employees, who are committed and loyal and treat your customers well,” Lewis Young said.
But the bill has been scaled back from its original form. Lewis Young’s bill originally required employers to post salary information as part of job announcements, which would bring greater transparency to salary levels for all workers. But business groups opposed that provision in part because it would allow companies to get an inside glimpse at their competitors. Those requirements were amended out of the bill.
A cross-filed version of Lewis Young's bill in the Maryland Senate has not yet advanced out of committee. Her bill will get a Senate committee hearing later this month.
Asked what other policies governments could help equalize earnings between men and women, George emphasized the importance of policies that allow paid family leave. Maryland ranked first among the states for the best paid family leave law, according to an analysis of women's advancements published in 2013 by the Center for American Progress.
Maryland also claimed the No. 1 spot overall in terms of economic benefits for women, based on criteria that included the wage gap, poverty levels and and the wage gap among minority women, the report stated.
Powell maintained that closing the remaining income gap couldn't be achieved through law or policy alone. She named shifting cultural and societal norms as the key factor for equal pay.
"The law tends to follow the thinking of society," she said. "It's an organic process."
Staff writer Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this story.