Women in Chicago aren’t giving up on fair pay

In 2009 Samantha Whitney was Chief Operating Officer for a global professional services firm in Chicago. She had just started a family and was at what she thought was the top of her game.

Whitney was walking with her newborn when she got a call from her boss that made her world come crashing down. He called just hours before the firm filed for bankruptcy.

She was faced with a decision to give her life new direction: become a stay-at-home mom, find a new job or start her own business.

“I think for women especially, it’s about what we do and what contributions we’re making,” Whitney said.

Just a few years before the firm filed for bankruptcy, Whitney realized she wasn’t being paid the same as her male counterparts.  It wasn’t until the firm hired a president that she realized.

“He [the new president] said, ‘you need to pay Samantha far better than how you’re paying her. You’re not even giving her market value,’” Whitney said.

Now, after starting her own business, Athena Research Consulting, she encourages other women to negotiate starting salaries.

Like Whitney, Barbara Yong also recognizes the pay gap.

“Just studying the women who are working full-time as hard and as passionate as the men in their field, there’s still a wage gap,” Yong said.

Studies show, Yong said, that women make seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man makes. She said that pay in fields dominated by women, like teaching and nursing, are more unequal than fields dominated by men.

“They’ve calculated that a woman would have to work the entire prior year, January through December, plus January through April in order to come even with what a man makes in one year,” Yong said.

The pay gap is less visible when men and women first start their careers, Yong said.

“Within the first 10 years of a man and woman being I the same industry, it’s close, but there’s a little gap,” Yong said. “But by year 20, 30 and 40, that gap is huge.”

In early April, Congress failed to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act that would allow employees to discuss pay. This would have made it easier for women to determine whether they are being underpaid.

Heather Bailey said she recognizes the pay gap and encourages women to negotiate starting salaries. However, looking at the Paycheck Fairness Act, Bailey said it is clear that it would be too restrictive on businesses.

“I’m guessing one of the reasons it didn’t pass is that employers do have the right to run their business, the way they need to run their business within the parameters of the law, Bailey said. “I think that one was just too intrusive.”

Each of these women said the fight for fair pay is far from over. Women are still less likely than men to negotiate a starting salary. Ashley Orler, works with Yong and says she feared that negotiating her starting salary would make it seem like she wasn’t excited about the job.

Orler said having a woman’s perspective helps young professionals navigate their career field.

“Especially having a woman’s perspective is ideal,” Orler said. “They’ve been through a lot of the struggles, issues that other women, professional women face.”

Each agreed the pay gap is slowly decreasing through mentorship, encouraging confidence in the workplace and negotiating salaries.

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