Everybody knows that women commonly get paid less than their male counterparts to do the same work. But does that hold true for highly educated women in the upper reaches of corporate management, including Mary Barra, whom Fortune Magazine ranked No. 1 in a list of the world's most powerful women in business?
Barra, the new CEO of General Motors, is the first woman to head a major automaker. She was seated near Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address as the president lauded her as an example of American drive and success.
Yet Fox Business reported, somewhat disingenuously, that her compensation package lags that of her male predecessor — a man who had zero experience in leading an automotive giant like GM — by some 52 percent. Dan Akerson, who led GM after the company's taxpayer bailout, earned $9.1 million, including a $1.7 million base, plus $7.3 million in stock. Barra earns a base salary of $1.6 million but a total of $4.4 million with other benefits.
What's missing from Fox's appraisal of Barra's compensation is stock options. Come June, when shareholders meet, Barra's long-term incentive compensation package will be announced, likely raising her salary substantially. A good bet is that it will exceed Akerson's 2013 package. It would be bad public relations for GM to do differently.
Most women don't have their salaries open to public scrutiny via SEC filings. They don't have pundits assessing where they stand compared to similarly skilled male employees.
What they do face, to varying degrees, is the point the president emphasized in his State of the Union address: "Today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns."
The president's statement set off the usual quibbles about that statistic. The number changes depending on many factors, such as whether or not part-time work is factored in, or hourly vs. weekly earnings, race, education attainment and choice of profession. A study of 2012 data by Pew Research Center accounted for some of those factors and found women earn 84 cents for every $1 earned by men.
Within Barra's lifetime (she's 52), the employment landscape for women has changed considerably. The last half-century is the focus of a new study by the Council on Contemporary Families, which notes the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which also outlawed discrimination by gender.
In 1963, full-time working women earned 59 cents for every dollar men earned. That's risen by 30 percent since that time, if one accepts the 77 cent mark, Max Coleman of Oberlin College points out in "Civil Rights for Women: 1964-2014."
Younger female workers, aged 25 to 34, show special promise for the future as their hourly earnings are now 93 percent of men's, the study found. But also true is what many people realize: that pay inequities can increase when women have children.
That's were the work must begin in earnest, because company policies, prevailing attitudes about maternity and paternity leave, and the availability of childcare are factors that strongly influence the decisions families make about work.
It's difficult and very costly to leave the workforce to have children and then to return even a few years later. The blame for this tends to land back on women, for choosing to cut work hours in the first place, or for not negotiating better when re-entering the workforce after their children begin school.
There is some validity to the argument that women fall short of men in negotiating raises and promotions for themselves, but the point requires context. Women should not be faulted for this without acknowledging why such self-defeating behavior evolved in the first place. As Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in her book "Lean In," people expect men to negotiate on their own behalf, but the same behavior by a woman will often backfire. A woman can be labeled too self-serving and be penalized in future advancement.
Barra, a mother of two teenagers, revealed an astonishing fact in an interview with Fortune. She said she'd never asked for a raise and never asked for a promotion.
That approach obviously worked for her. But for other women to advance, it's going to take much more proactive pushing from them, their male and female co-workers and spouses, and their workplaces.
In 1964, no women had ever been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, according to Coleman's report. Today, women run 23 Fortune 500 companies — in other words, less than 5 percent of such firms.
You've come a long way, baby (as the Virginia Slims ads used to tell us). But not nearly far enough.