Bob Thomas: Unequal pay isn’t always linked to a person’s gender

Good grief, girls! Isn’t being the more intelligent and attractive of our human species reward enough?

No? OK. Now, how many of you have any idea how unequal pay for equal work became standard policy in the workplace? Back in 1918, my mom and dad worked in the General Motors home office in Detroit. Both were 18 and newly married. Mom was a trained stenographer who could type 80 errorless words per minute on a mechanical typewriter. Dad was a trained bookkeeper. In those days, students graduated from high school with marketable skills.

Equal pay for equal work wasn’t a problem. Women and men simply didn’t do the same jobs, but no question about it, no matter who did what, women made less money and for good reasons. In those days, women worked to get a financial head start for marriage, a dowry. Single moms were unheard of. Divorces were few, if any.

Women were always paid less than men mainly because, following marriage, it was expected they would be having children and wouldn’t be working very long. Men, on the other hand, had few job options, so they were a better investment. Why invest money training women for higher-paying jobs when they were short-term?

It took World War II to temporarily change things, but old habits die hard. War-material production required women to perform some tasks that had been reserved for men. Not only was it patriotic, women became the family breadwinners because their soldier husbands didn’t make enough money to send much, if any, home. Here again, it wasn’t a case of equal pay for equal work, because defense jobs had several skill-classification levels with different pay scales, and whoever performed equal-level jobs received equal pay.

It took many years following the war before some companies adopted equal pay for equal work because it was still believed that women were basically homemakers. However, seasoned women who were past the age of child bearing often opted for permanent careers and were better-paid. My company sought seasoned women. In manufacturing, few factory jobs are performed by both men and women, but some white-collar jobs are. Today, licensed professions are probably the most blatant examples of unequal pay for equal work.

In our company we were fortunate that our 200-plus women in electronic assembly had no male competition. We discovered eons ago that women are better electronics assemblers. They have more patience and, on average, better dexterity. Our policy was always equal pay for equal work.

We used no time clocks. Everyone was on salary for a 40-hour week. Those doing the same or similar work received the same salary regardless of gender. Salary levels were posted for all to see. Our incremental increases were in steps of $25 (1964) per week, with no limit. We had zero performance reviews tied to hourly pay increases. All raises were merit raises and could be earned at any time.

We had almost an equal number of men and women, with only three organizational levels in our entire company. We were determined to retain our entrepreneurial organizational structure before surrendering to that inevitable horror of horrors, becoming a bureaucracy. Also, we were one of the first companies in Orange County to work with the Congress of Racial Equality, hiring and training young black people. We were known as a colorblind company.

Equal pay for equal work? Remember, male and female employees having the same job classifications, education, training and work experience aren’t necessarily performing tasks of equal value to the enterprise, resulting in different level pays having nothing to do with gender.


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