"You don’t belong there.”
These first words spoken to me upon my arrival in Miami in 2010 were less than encouraging. The customs officer was questioning the decision of a young Latina woman entering the country to attend a historically black university. Happily, his bias was quickly tempered with a smile and a “welcome to the United States” as I headed off to pursue my version of the American dream.
A volleyball scholarship was my ticket to become the first woman from the San Juan de Lurigancho District of Peru to graduate with honors from an American university. And without that experience, I never would have discovered what was completely missing from my earlier education in Lima. Women. They weren’t mentioned in history. They weren’t mentioned in science. They weren’t mentioned in literature.
My first opportunity to read a book written by a woman was in college. At the age of 20, reading “Sula” by Tony Morrison, I discovered the feminist inside me and set a goal of empowering women back home.
I’m grateful for all the opportunities that the United States has given me, especially here in Pittsburgh. This city has opened its doors and allowed me to become one of its Coro fellows. I am gaining experience in a variety of public affairs arenas through field placements. I’m now working at the Women and Girls Foundation, where I’ve had the opportunity to work on my passion: women’s empowerment.
My first assignment — to organize Pittsburgh’s Equal Pay Day Rally, which will be held Thursday at noon in Market Square — had me smiling from ear to ear as I dove into research for the project.
I knew that, on average, U.S. women working full-time are paid just 77 percent of what U.S. men are paid. What I didn’t know is that Pittsburgh is on the top 10 list for the worst-paying cities for women — and that across Pennsylvania, Latinas are paid just 58 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.
I was in shock. How is it possible that what I considered a progressive city, one full of opportunities for young professionals, has such an awful gender wage gap? I could not help but remember the words of the customs agent upon my arrival — and wonder if perhaps Pittsburgh was a place where I did not belong.
Intrigued, I continued my research.
According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, on average a woman in the Pittsburgh metro area who holds a full-time job is paid $36,726 per year while a man who holds a full-time job is paid $50,133. This means that women in the Pittsburgh area are paid 73 cents for every dollar paid to men here, amounting to a yearly gap of $13,407. This gap holds true when you compare workers in similar occupations and with similar levels of education.
As a group, women employed full-time in the Pittsburgh area fall behind by approximately $4,544,128,359 each year due to the wage gap. If the wage gap were eliminated, a working woman in the Pittsburgh area would have enough money for approximately two more years of food, 11 more months of mortgage and utilities payments, 20 more months of rent or 3,656 additional gallons of gas.
What about Latinas?
The median salary for Latinas in Pennsylvania is $28,037 per year, compared to a median salary of $47,956 for all men — a difference of $19,919. If this even-larger wage gap were eliminated, consider how much more a Latina working full-time could purchase in goods and services.
Pennsylvania women and their families cannot afford discrimination and lower wages! Women are responsible for the economic security of their families: 597,610 households in Pennsylvania and 118,411 households in Pittsburgh are headed by women. About 30 percent of these households have incomes that fall below the poverty level. Eliminating the wage gap would provide much-needed income to women whose salaries are of critical importance to their families.
For the 30 percent of working mothers who are their families’ sole breadwinner, the gender pay gap contributes to poor living conditions, poor nutrition and fewer opportunities for their children. For these women, closing the gap is much more than a point of pride — it is a matter of justice.
I think of the American dream, of the ideals of freedom, equality and opportunity being made available to every American. Are women not considered Americans?
The economic security of Pennsylvania women and their families is put at risk when women are paid less than men. For that reason, local corporate leaders should ensure their companies conduct regular wage-equity audits so they can discover where gaps are opening and work to remedy them. We also need to support Pennsylvania’s Equal Pay Bill. House Bill 1890 would update the reasons employers could pay different wages to different employees, including specific attributes such as education, training and job-related experience. The bill also would fortify protections for employees attempting to bring a pay-equity lawsuit against an employer and those who share information about their pay.
I’m calling on those who believe in equality and social justice to join me at the Equal Pay Rally on Thursday. This also will be Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. We should bring young people to the rally, too, because it is their future we are fighting for.
Pittsburgh women and their families cannot wait for the wage gap to even out over time — at the rate it’s going, it will take 50 years! It is time for us to join together as a community to make the American Dream the American Reality.
Gianina Marquez Olivera is a 2013-14 fellow at the Coro Center for Civic Leadership in Pittsburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org).