Ledger-Transcript: Kuster holds talks on pay equity
RINDGE — Last week, Congresswoman Annie Kuster (D-N.H. 2nd District) rolled out an economic agenda for women and families, detailing acts sponsored or supported by Kuster that would address issues of paycheck fairness, minimum wage, family leave time, job training and workforce development, and female health care. Since then, Kuster has been meeting with local colleges and business leaders to hold round-table discussions to let women and men weigh in on their own experiences in the workplace. On Wednesday, Kuster met with students, faculty and staff from Franklin Pierce University to discuss her economic agenda.
Kuster told the gathered group that since her election to Congress two years ago, she has had a focus on job creation and workforce development. Along with that came a more specific interest in women in the workplace.
“You’ve heard the statistic that women earn 77 cents for every $1 that a man makes for the same job. For every 23 cents that is left on the table, that’s less that’s available for things like owning a home or contributing to higher education for your family,” said Kuster. And while that is perhaps the most commonly attributed fact about workplace inequality, it’s still a statistic that leaves many people questioning its authenticity, she said.
“They are in a state of denial. Many can’t believe that it would still be legal to do that,” said Kuster. “We just need to keep talking about it. And it’s important to reach beyond in this conversation and include men in the conversation. Money is precious in people’s lives — they want to do important things with it. They’re not husbands that want to leave 23 cents on the dollar behind. No one wants that for their family or their daughters. These issues are not exclusive. They’re inclusive and we need to get everyone involved.”
Mary Ann Gaal, an assistant professor of management and business at Franklin Pierce and a Keene resident, said that when she discusses the issue of pay inequality with people, and particularly men, she has experienced that disbelief. “I just get this incredulous look, like, ‘That’s not happening anymore.’ Yes it is,” she said.
“In some cases, it’s a confidence gap, and not a competence gap,” said Kuster.Part of the problem, said Kuster, is cultural normalities and societal impressions. Women are less likely to negotiate for higher pay, and where men tend to ask for promotions or raises when they have a majority of qualifications, women will wait until they are 100 percent qualified before seeking a new position.
Kim Mooney, the provost for the university, agreed that women are less likely to be assertive in asking for increased compensation, even when it’s deserved. The first time she ever negotiated for a higher salary, she said, the president of the college was shocked that she had brought it up, even though she had recently gained a new position with expanded duties. “This was shocking at the time,” said Mooney. But, she added, she did get the compensation she deserved.
Kristin Bourgault, an MBA student at FPU, added that cultural perception goes both ways. “The cultural norm says it’s OK for men to be feisty. When men negotiate, they’re seen as skillful and confident, where a woman is seen as pushy,” she said.
Madelene Morrill, a psychology major, agreed. “You can’t really win,” she said. “You don’t want to come on too strong, but you don’t want to be too humble and not stand out, either,” she said.
Mooney said there has to be a new understanding for the strengths of women in leadership positions. For example, she said, women are known to be good collaborators, but collaboration can sometimes be equated with not being able to make your own decisions. “Collaboration is not avoidance of leadership,” said Mooney. “It’s a gold standard for leadership for women.”
Economic agenda for women and families
Kuster’s agenda for women and families addresses nine areas through legislation, some of which have a stronger chance of gaining traction than others, she said in an interview following the round-table discussion.
Kuster also supports a higher minimum wage, which would have a large impact on the female demographic, since nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women. There is not a lot of support for a raised minimum wage in Congress currently, said Kuster.Kuster cosponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would strengthen remedies available to victims of pay discrimination on the basis of gender. While some issues of pay inequality can be addressed as issues of differences in education or experience, there is an element of straight discrimination, said Kuster. “You wouldn’t pay someone with brown eyes more than someone with blue eyes,” she said.
Kuster is also supporting several acts that would give basic sick days, paid family and medial leave for families, and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to prevent employers from forcing pregnant workers out of their jobs, and to afford reasonable accommodations to pregnant women in the workplace. Ideas such as paid family leave, Kuster said, are difficult to gain support for, particularly in a down economy. From a worker’s perspective, however, the difference between knowing that a job will still be available following a leave and being able to afford to take that leave for your family can be a world of difference.
One area that has seen strong support, said Kuster, is in the job training and workforce development areas of her economic agenda. Kuster introduced the Workforce Development Investment Act, which rewards employers with tax credits for partnering with educators to develop curriculum, teach students, and provide hands-on learning opportunities. The focus for Kuster is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, learning opportunities. STEM fields are high-growth fields with higher earning potential, but only 24 percent of STEM jobs are held by women. There has also been strides in supporting women entrepreneurs in respect to government-wide federal contracting.
All of the bills on Kuster’s Economic Agenda for Women and Families have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, but have not yet passed in either the House or Senate.