Today is Equal Pay Day — the day when, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity, the wages earned by an average working American woman since Jan. 1, 2012, finally equal the amount the average male worker earned through Dec. 31. For women on the receiving end of gender-based discrimination in compensation, it’s a day to seethe.

But if you’re a woman working for the state of Minnesota or one of its local governments, today is a day to celebrate. On average, your pay has kept pace with that of your male counterparts for several years.

Minnesota is one of only a handful of states to require equal pay for work of equal value in government employment, as measured by a job-specific point system. That’s been the law in state employment since 1982 and county and municipal employment since 1984. But achieving the law’s goal took many years. Full pay equity was finally achieved in state employment in 2010; it’s still a matter for regular, though typically minor, pay adjustments in local governments.

A well-deserved salute to that achievement and to the women’s equity crusaders who engineered it is planned at the State Capitol this morning. Among those expected to be on hand are Nina Rothchild, the founding director of the Council on the Economic Status of Women, and Minneapolis state Sen. Linda Berglin, the council’s first chair and pay equity legislation’s prime sponsor.

Pay equity was a major feminist breakthrough when it was signed into law by Republican Gov. Al Quie. But it wasn’t particularly controversial, Rothchild recalls. That’s because the council and its allies in both parties had been at work for six years documenting systemic gender discrimination in government employment. They had the advantage of a newly developed Hay system for scoring a job’s value, which could be used to spot patterns of bias in matters of hiring, promotion and compensation.

A task force reported in March 1982 that female-dominated jobs consistently were paid less than men’s jobs with the same Hay scores. For example, dining hall coordinators (a female-dominated job) made $300 per month less than an auto parts technician whose job measured the same on the Hay scale. A clerk typist took home $267 per month less than the identically scored delivery van driver.

Such disparities are “bad old days” stuff in Minnesota state government. But they remain the reality in the private sector, according to the latest semiannual wage report of the American Association of University Women. It found that in 2011, Minnesota women on average were paid 80 percent as much as average men — $40,416 per year, compared with $50,580 for men.

Private-sector employees often justify the persistence of gender disparities in pay by saying they are guided by the marketplace. But, as Rothchild noted, the American employment marketplace has always undervalued caregiving, which is a component of many jobs dominated by women.

Changing the private marketplace’s estimation of such work’s worth was one of the goals of pay equity crusaders 30 years ago. They sought to make government a model employer for women, hoping both to set government on firmer moral ground and to give other states and the private sector a competitive reason to follow suit.

Those hopes have been only partially realized. As recently as two years ago, some legislators and local governments sought to repeal pay-equity requirements, arguing that private-sector employers face no similar requirement.

Fortunately, that repeal effort died as Minnesota women spoke up. They told legislators that pay equity has been good for women, their families, their communities and the Minnesotans that female government workers serve on the job. A reprise of those arguments at the Capitol today is welcome, and not just for history’s sake.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Follow the editorial board: on Twitter  |  on Facebook   |  on Instagram | on Google+