Is the city of Modesto guilty of paying females less than males for the same work? A court will decide if gender discrimination was a factor. As it is now probably discovering, this may not always be an easy thing to prove one way or the other.
Experience, seniority, training, general competence as well as ability to satisfy the customer may all be factors in compensation levels, and not all are easily quantified.
I once had a young woman ask if the organization I worked for paid men more than women. I replied of course we did, but not because of discrimination. Many of our physician members were male and almost all of the nonphysician employees were female. (In fact, women now make up over half of medical school graduates -- a dramatic change from 50 years ago when gender discrimination kept female numbers down). So it wasn't gender but occupation that caused the difference.
She thought for a moment, then asked if our female doctors were paid the same as our male doctors. Again, the answer was no, but I explained -- some medical specialties are paid more than others. In general, doctors who do procedures -- surgeons, orthopedists, some cardiologists and others -- are regularly compensated at higher levels than primary care physicians and that this was standard throughout the profession. Despite many exceptions, female medical graduates tend to opt for less stressful, nonsurgical specialties like pediatrics and family practice, which pay less. What appeared to be gender discrimination can really be explained on the basis of subspecialty choice.
This stopped her, but only for a moment.
Are all physicians in the same specialty paid the same, she asked. Again, I answered no and again explained that, like most medical institutions, ours paid higher salaries to those who worked longer hours and saw more patients. Even though they make wonderful doctors, women doctors are, on the average, less productive than males because many have family obligations that men do not. Raising kids, for instance, takes time away from a practice.
So it's not about gender, it's time on task and productivity. Correct for that, I told her, and the pay system is gender blind. In fact, several women doctors are paid well above the average and, not uncommonly, more than their male counterparts.
I'm not sure she went away convinced, but she is probably correct that islands of gender discrimination remain in compensation as well as promotion.
Past pay discrimination based on gender is an established fact. We are but a few decades beyond paying married male teachers more than their single female colleagues for doing the same work -- a practice once accepted by society as fair and practical.
More than one female author has masqueraded behind a male name because society could not accept that a supposedly empty-headed female could write serious literature.
In the case of the Modesto city employees, one hopes for an outcome based on a full and dispassionate evaluation of all factors.
Allen, a semiretired Modesto physician, has served
as a visiting editor on The Bee's editorial board.
E-mail him at email@example.com.