How I Lost A Million Dollars: What Pay Equity Really Means

As a longtime journalist, I’ve covered what American society considers to be “women’s issues” for 40 years — including pay inequities, which were big news when I became a reporter in the 1970‘s. Unfortunately for all of us, the gender gap is still making headlines today, because female full-time workers earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men.

As if that weren’t depressing enough, the United States lags far behind many other nations in achieving wage equality. A new report by the World Economic Forum found that the United States ranks 65th among 142 countries.

But we’ve heard about women’s lost wages for so many years that the actual figures take on a numbing familiarity. What they really mean may not fully register until later in life, when it’s too late to do anything about the longterm cost of such penalties.

So let me tell you about how I lost a million dollars, how a young woman I know is on her way to losing millions more, and what that may mean for you.

When I was hired by The New York Times in 1978, the paper had just settled a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit by promising it would not discriminate against women. Imagine my surprise, 10 years later, to learn that the male reporter at the next desk was making $60,000 a year doing the same job I was doing for less than $48,000 a year.

[pullquote]My employers clearly felt they were doing me a huge favor — but my modest raise still left me earning $10,000 a year less than my husband-to-be.[/pullquote]

I was even more surprised when I brought this discrepancy to the attention of my superiors and they yelled at me for discovering what the other reporter made. “What did you do — go through his trash and steal his pay stub?” my editor demanded. (In fact, unbeknownst to him, the other reporter and I were planning to get married and buy a home together — but this didn’t have anything to do with why my husband-to-be, who was younger and less experienced than I was, nonetheless earned so much more than I did.)

When I pressed the issue, my editors grudgingly agreed to raise my salary to $50,000. They clearly felt they were doing me a huge favor — but my modest raise still left me earning $10,000 a year less than my husband-to-be. The Times refused to rectify the remaining pay gap, so I went to see an employment lawyer who had worked on the original class-action lawsuit against the paper.

“They haven’t kept any of their promises and sex discrimination is still endemic at The Times,” she said. “It’s just a question of whether you want to tank your career by suing them.”

I was mulling this over when I received an excellent job offer from Vanity Fair, so I quit The Times and never looked back — until a couple of years ago, while I was writing a column for The Daily Beast about gender-based pay discrimination at Walmart. As I interviewed a financial advisor named Manisha Thakor about the long-term cost of the pay gap, I found myself wondering how much money I’d actually forfeited at The New York Times by “Reporting While Female.”

“If they had paid me the same salary as the man I married, and I’d earned $10,000 more for each of the 10 years I worked there, and I’d invested that $100,000 when I left The Times in 1988, how much money would I have now?” I asked Thakor.

She said the answer would depend on the rate of return on investment, but that basically I was out nearly a million dollars. For someone approaching retirement age, such a sum is significant. And I can’t even console myself with the thought that such losses are a thing of the past, because they’re not.

Earlier this year, Jill Abramson, the first woman ever to become executive editor of The New York Times, was abruptly fired, and the ensuing coverage detailed a considerable pay gap between her and her male colleagues.

When Abramson became executive editor, she was given a salary of $467,000 a year — but her predecessor made $559,000, according to The New Yorker. In her previous post as managing editor, Abramson actually made less than a subordinate male colleague whose title was managing editor for news operations. Prior to that, The New Yorker reported, Abramson was paid $100,000 a year less as The Times’ Washington bureau chief than the man who succeeded her.

The Times’ publisher, Arthur Sulzburger Jr., denied that these inequities were related to Abramson’s gender, or that her firing was precipitated by the fact that she’d consulted a lawyer about the compensation gap.

To my amazement, my first reaction to this news was to burst into tears of grief and rage. My second reaction was to say yes to the television shows asking me to come on and discuss the issue. I managed not to sob while on the air, but I was furious. How was it possible that 36 years after promising it would stop discriminating against women in general, and 26 years after refusing to stop discriminating against me in particular, The Times was still paying the highest-ranking woman in its history so much less than her male colleagues?

The nation’s greatest newspaper is certainly not alone in perpetuating such practices. Last year, a young woman whose identity I will shield on the grounds that she values her job and wants to keep it, was hired by another prestigious media organization in an entry-level position. Shortly thereafter, a male colleague quit and the company asked her to take over his job, since she performed the required skills better than anyone who had interviewed for it. Although he was only one year older than she was, with three years of work experience following college to her two years, the man who quit had received a base salary of $75,000, plus overtime; the young woman was then earning a base salary of $32,000. When she asked what she would be paid in the new job, she was told that this hadn’t been decided yet.

When it comes to fighting for women’s rights, women are largely alone. Why don’t men join us on the front lines?

So she started doing the new job at her old salary for the next seven months. Despite constant inquiries about rectifying the pay gap, she continued to earn considerably less than half of what her male predecessor was paid for doing the same job. When she finally got her raise, she was bumped up to $50,000 a year — a nice increase from her previous salary, but still nowhere near what the man had received.

Over time, the consequences of this pay gap will prove considerable for her, as they did for me. Let’s say she’s making $25,000 a year less than he did (even though the figure is actually higher if you include overtime), and let’s say she stays at this company for 10 years, as I did at The New York Times. Under those circumstances, she would earn $250,000 less than her male counterpart would have made during those years.

If he invested only the money represented by their pay gap, he would possess over two million dollars more than she will a few decades from now, as they both near retirement age.

It has always baffled me that such inequities are still framed as a “women’s issue,” and that women are largely left to fight for fair treatment on their own. Why haven’t men embraced this battle and joined with women in pushing for equality? During the anti-war movement, women protested America’s involvement in Vietnam alongside men, even though females weren’t being drafted. During the civil rights movement, white people joined African-Americans in fighting for racial equality; a white friend of mine lost a kidney, and nearly lost his life, at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.

But when it comes to fighting for women’s rights, women are largely alone. Why don’t men join us on the front lines? As female human beings, we’re not some foreign species whose welfare has nothing to do with that of men; we are your mothers, your wives, your girlfriends, your daughters, your sisters. We are the major breadwinners in more than 40 percent of American families, but we are far more likely to fall below the poverty line — and the economic penalty for being female becomes ever worse as we age. Women end up in poverty at twice the rate of men in their later years, and many more live in straitened circumstances; a study of U.S. Census Department data by Wider Options for Women, a non-profit organization that focuses on workforce issues, found that sixty percent of older women are unable to pay for their basic needs. What’s wrong with this picture?

These inequities should have been rectified a long time ago, but men have failed to make it a priority to end pay discrimination against women. Men continue to hold most of the economic and political power in this country; they run the majority of the companies, control the payrolls and dominate the legislatures. As a matter of basic human fairness, it’s long past time for men to take on this battle.

So here’s a challenge to the men of America: no matter where you work, no matter what field you’re in, no matter whether you have two employees reporting to you or 200 or 200,000, check your financial statements and make sure the women aren’t being paid less than the men are earning for comparable work.

And if the women are being paid less — fix it. Now.

(Graphic: Kat Borosky/, Photo: irin-k/

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