WASHINGTON — Only two things differentiated Keri Rodrigues Lorenzo from her male colleagues in radio — a higher voice and lower pay.
The difference — sometimes $20,000 less than her male counterparts — grew larger, she said, as she advanced at broadcast stations in Massachusetts and elsewhere. She blamed herself, worked harder, fought it, accepted the reality, and eventually left the industry she loved.
Massachusetts was the first state to adopt an equal pay law, but as Lorenzo’s experience shows, pay for men and women remains far from equal, nearly 70 years after the law passed. Women in Massachusetts earn more than those in all but two states — Maryland and New Jersey — yet still make far less than men, according to a new report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington think tank.
“I was paid to be a personality,” said Rodrigues Lorenzo, a Wilmington resident who left broadcasting in 2008 and ventured into labor advocacy and local politics. “And the fact that my personality was worth less than a man’s because I was a woman was very disheartening, very personal.”
The persistence of the gender gap is shaping a national debate over women in the workplace and underscores the challenge facing Congress as it weighs the government’s role in closing it. Senate Republicans this month, for the fourth time, blocked Democrat-sponsored equal pay legislation.
The bill, known as the Paycheck Fairness Act, would bar companies from retaliating against employees who share salary information with each other, make it easier for workers to engage in class action suits, and require employers to explain pay disparities. This goes beyond the Massachusetts law that was enacted in 1945 and set a basic standard of equal pay for equal work. It builds on 2009 federal legislation that expanded the right of workers to file wage discrimination claims.
Republicans labeled the bill an election-year tactic. Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, likened it to a “giveaway” for trial lawyers that would increase frivolous lawsuits, limit the ability of employers to award merit pay, and make it difficult to create flexible work schedules.
She tried to offer an amendment that would narrow some of the bill’s provisions on businesses, but Senate majority leader Harry Reid banned amendment votes. Ayotte said in a statement that Reid was “putting election-year politics over policy.”
Democrats have sought to make income inequality a prime focus of the midterm elections, beginning with two executive actions President Obama issued in April related to equal pay for federal contractors. Women constitute 53 percent of the electorate, making them a key voting bloc in many races.
In New Hampshire, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat and supporter of the bill, attacked her Republican opponent, former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, for voting against the legislation in 2010 and 2012. Brown’s campaign declined to comment, but pointed to remarks he made in April. Brown did not discuss his votes against the bill then, but said he supported equal pay and was frustrated Congress couldn’t reach a compromise.
Scholars generally agree a pay disparity exists, but they differ on its size and just how to calculate it. Some argue broad comparisons don’t take into account nuances like days off and can change based on measurements of hourly, weekly, or annual wages. They point to a range of factors that contribute to the gap, beyond obvious discrimination.
Men historically accept higher paying jobs in areas such as finance, rather than education or nursing. Women who take leave to have children can miss opportunities that men who stay in the office don’t. And cultural differences, such as a woman’s hesitance to ask for a raise, also may play a role.
“I don't think companies wake up and say, ‘We’re going to pay women less,’ ” said Rachel Kaprielian, Massachusetts' secretary of Labor and Workforce Development who heads a new task force that is devising policy recommendations to help advance working women.
Boston has launched a similar initiative focused on eliminating the pay gap.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which released its pay study this month, calculated that Massachusetts women with full-time jobs make about 78 percent of what men with full-time jobs earn. Twenty other states have smaller differences.
“The reality is we are mediocre in terms of the wage gap,” said former Democratic lieutenant governor Evelyn Murphy, the first woman to hold statewide office in Massachusetts and the president of the WAGE Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending wage inequity. “It’s a huge issue that doesn’t get enough attention.”
The disparity affects females at all income levels. But women in professional and managerial occupations tend to feel greater gender pay differences than those in working-class jobs, said Randy Albelda, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Lower-wage workers, she said, don’t get the discretionary bonuses or large raises that come with higher-paying jobs and widen the difference in pay.
This appears especially clear in Massachusetts, where census data shows the country’s highest number of college graduates. The state is distinctive not only in its universities but in a sizable health care industry that often sees a higher percentage of female employees.
“The top states [by income] are categorized by high-level, white-collar work, and public investment in education tends to be strong,” said Cynthia Hess, study director for the women’s policy organization, whose funders include labor groups, Girl Scouts of the USA, and prominent foundations. “But a lot of times what you find is women are doing well and men are doing more well, so the gap is bigger than average.”
Men in Massachusetts, with a median pay of $60,000, tie for the top-ranking state with Connecticut and New Jersey. Massachusetts women who work full-time make a median yearly income of $47,000. Nationally, women earned a median annual pay of $37,000, or about 78 percent of the $47,000 earned by men. (Median figures, while not able to capture outlier cases, often are used to analyze pay gaps.)
A separate report, written by a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor and released this month by centrist think tank Third Way, found women sustain a wage penalty of about 4 percent when they have a child; men end up with a 6 percent bonus. The study attributed this to several factors, including perceptions that mothers get preoccupied with a baby and fathers become more trustworthy.
Massachusetts has made progress, rising 17 spots in the earnings ratio since the Institute for Women’s Policy Research released its last report in 2006. Successful women attribute this partly to increased awareness and a culture of mentorship among females outside the workplace.
Toni Wolfman walked into a Boston law firm three decades ago and left as a partner. Christa Hagearty took on the family’s Quincy dry-cleaning company and helped the franchise grow. Kate Walsh started as an intern in a Jamaica Plain health care facility; she now runs Boston Medical Center.
Wolfman, now an executive adviser at Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business, hopes for more.
“The real responsibility is we have to make sure we are bringing everybody else along,” she said. “We are surely not there.”
Jessica Meyers is at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessicameyers.