Women across America talk a lot these days about the need for paid family leave and affordable health-care and college costs. But getting equal pay for the same work men perform is the top economic priority working women are poised to fight for, according to a new union survey being released Thursday on Capitol Hill.
The survey of about 23,000 working female respondents, most of them union members, was conducted by the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions. It found that attaining gender pay equity trumped about 20 other social and economic issues of concern to those women, across varying demographics.
When women were presented with the list and then asked to choose no more than three issues that they would consider taking action to address, they cited equal pay for equal work most frequently. Nearly half, 46%, of respondents pointed to equal pay.
Their top choice was followed by affordable health care, guaranteed health care for all, affordable higher education and raising the minimum wage, in that order. Reproductive rights and stronger retirement savings programs didn’t make the top five. Neither did affordable housing, affordable child care or affordable higher education.
Gender pay inequity may have grabbed the top spot because it isn’t happening in a vacuum, the survey found. A majority of respondents, 59%, said they were the primary breadwinner in their households, making equal pay even more important to them and their families.
“Working women understand that our growing role in the workforce carries new responsibilities,” said Liz Shuler, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, who will release the survey Thursday alongside some Democratic House lawmakers, who are prepared to use the findings to push for legislation such as the Paycheck Fairness Act. “We embrace these responsibilities as part of making progress. What we don’t accept—what we have to stop accepting—is the price society demands from us in return.”
Part of the price Ms. Shuler is referring to is a decades-old gender pay gap that has narrowed some since 1979 but still persists. Women earn 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to a Census report released in September, though that doesn’t control for differences such as varying occupations or career interruptions that might affect pay, such as taking leave to care for children.
One culprit many economists believe accounts for some of the pay gap is gender discrimination, though it’s hard to prove even for the administration of President Barack Obama, who has made it a priority to close the gender pay gap.
The respondents to the survey, conducted over a six-week period during fall and winter, include both private- and public-sector workers representing a range of ages. The sample is likely somewhat older than the female workforce, the federation said. About 23% of respondents are young—between 18 and 35 years old—while 7% are over 65.
The jobs they do are varied. About 28% said they do office or administrative work, while another 22% are in education. Of the other 50%, 11% work in health services, 10% in the arts and media and 10% in community and social services. About 7% work in retail and the rest work in fields ranging from construction and food service to hospitality and domestic work.
One distinction about this group of women is that they are largely politically involved: 92% are registered to vote, 88% voted in the last presidential election, and 90% intend to vote this year, they indicated. For many, that could be tied in part to their union affiliation. Two-thirds of respondents—67%—are union members. That’s a group the federation intentionally sought to question as it tries to better serve them and woo nonunion women following years of steep membership declines among men.
Ms. Shuler said she was surprised that equal pay ranked first among unionized women, who are often paid the same as unionized men at work because of collective bargaining agreements. Still, “there are still sectors where it’s not exactly even,” she said.
The women were also presented with a separate list of about 20 issues and asked to pick up to three they consider the greatest barriers to their economic stability. Their top choice was health-care costs, followed by low wages, the cost of higher education or student loan debt, and the lack of control over, or unpredictability of, work schedules. Personal debt rounded out the top five.
Women might find some comfort in evidence showing they’re not alone in their concerns about unequal pay. Some recent surveys show men have suspicions that women are undercompensated, too.
Of course, what matters most is how much weight policy makers and employers who set the pay give to the issue.
Economist Heather Boushey says in her recently released book that as the American wife has become the American worker, there are policy and economic implications that need addressing—for women’s sake and for men’s.