Heidi Hartmann

Heidi Hartmann is president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research .

Updated March 31, 2013, 6:26 PM

Getting paid fairly for the work you do is tough for almost everyone, but a few things going on in the United States labor market make it particularly difficult for some.

First off, of course, is that the slow economic recovery and still-high unemployment rate make getting a job difficult, especially for new entrants into the labor market. At least someone with a job knows she won’t have to accept less than what she’s already making.

When pay scales are open in organizations that allow collective bargaining, data show that women are paid more equally to men.

Second, the United States has a sizable wage gap between women and men across the economy, about 23 percent for those who work full-time, year-round. A famous example of this kind of gender wage gap is that of Lilly Ledbetter , who worked as a department manager at a Goodyear tire factory for nearly two decades until she learned that the male department managers were all outearning her. She lost her discrimination suit in the Supreme Court.

Third, the United States has a relatively low share of employees who are represented by labor unions or professional associations that bargain collectively; less than 10 percent of workers in the private sector are unionized. Collective bargaining typically makes pay rates for jobs open information. Civil service jobs, whether in states where collective bargaining is allowed or not, also typically have open pay scales that allow workers to compare themselves to others. When pay scales are open, data show that women are paid more equally to men.

Fourth, many employers discourage or actively prohibit employees from exchanging information about pay. An IWPR–Rockefeller Foundation survey of 2,700 Americans found that 62 percent of those who work in the private sector are prohibited or discouraged from talking about their pay, compared with only 18 percent in the public sector.

One proposed federal bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act would fix this part of the problem. If passed, it would apply to the vast majority of American workers and would penalize employers who retaliate against workers who share wage and salary information.

In the meantime, while waiting for the Paycheck Fairness Act to pass, young women entering the job market should discuss current pay rates with friends and read salary surveys, some of which are available free online; look for companies that pride themselves on paying well and that promote women from entry-level positions all the way to the top; consider work within a unionized firm or a civil service job where salary information is open; and hone those math skills. Research shows that women earn more for every math course they take.