By HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – The Inaugural Black Women Equal Pay Day event took place last Mon., May 12 at Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Restaurant some two months early in order to discuss the need for all women, especially minority women, to speak up about the age old practice of unequal pay between the genders.
Toni Van Pelt and Cynthia Jenkins helped organized the event in record time after sitting around one day and chatting. Both women are active in the local community, their list of committees and accomplishments reading like a resume, with Jenkins touting the title of the Black Business Council president while Van Pelt is the president and public policy director currently lobbying Congress for the Institute for Science and Human Values.
Their mission: To inform the community of the gap in pay not only among male and females, but races related pay gaps while advocating for greater respect toward women workers.
“Families depend on women’s wages more than ever, but women working fulltime are typically paid less than male workers in every state,” said Van Pelt who emphasized African-American and Hispanic women had a larger disparity in wages than women of other races. “For black women, gender based pay discrimination often is a driver of a lifetime of crippling poverty.”
Today, a great number of women are heads of households supporting a family alone. But while women and their family lives have changed, employers and work place policies have not caught up. President Obama took time out to recognize the differences in pay among the genders, noting that women overall make only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. A staggering statistic. So why the gap?
Traditionally women have been deemed the caregivers of families. In past decades the men went off to work and the women cared for the children. If they found jobs, it was usually on a part-time basis. With non-career-oriented jobs, women were offered lower wages. But as the years have passed, so has the notion of a “typical family” consisting of a mom, dad and 2.2 children.
According to recent statistics published on thinkprogress.org, working single mothers are more likely to be poor, with some 65 percent of African-American single moms earning low wages. And Florida women as a whole aren’t doing much better, ranking 35th in the nation for the lowest pay for black women.
St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin spoke as an advocate for equality and reiterated the administration’s promise for St. Petersburg to be a city of opportunity.
“We will be an innovative, creative and competitive community that honors our past while pursuing our future,” said Tomalin who spoke of the values the nation’s founding fathers held true so many years ago. Values that today translate into equal pay, equal consideration, equal respect and most importantly equal opportunity for all. “That certainly includes equity for the women in our community.”
Familial obligations also play a huge role in the discrepancy in pay among the genders. Women make less today and may continue to make less in the future as long as they are expected to take on the role as primary caregiver. Because of this, women tend to seek out more flexible jobs that ultimately end up paying less. Van Pelt argues that until employers step up and adjust to today’s reality, the gender bias will continue.
“The pay gap isn’t just a women’s issue – it’s a family issue,” argued Van Pelt who pointed out that women’s wages during the recent recession, when a number of men lost their jobs, were a main driver of economic recovery and helped many families stay above water. “It also matters for the health and happiness of society as a whole from one generation to the next.” Van Pelt also noted that women workers disproportionately support children and elderly family members making their need for higher and equal income a necessity.
In addition, the pay gap could be perpetuated by the biased belief that women and men have inherently different skills sets, therefore leaving all the science and math oriented jobs to the males, while women tend to go into professions, although just as intellectually strenuous, deemed lesser in value.
Councilman Wengay Newton also took time out to give his view on the debate that isn’t new for him.
“You know I knew this was an issue way back when my mom was raising eight kids,” he said comparing the hard work his mother did to the movie, “The Help.” “That is exactly what she did to try and make ends meet,” he continued. “It is a shame that here we are in 2014 still talking about it.”
Newton, as well as others who have experienced the pay gap between the genders, do not understand what all the fuss is about. After all, equal work for equal pay seems like a no-brainer. “You have a job that pays this, so whoever works it should get that pay,” he said. But Newton isn’t new to the “good ole boy” ideology that pervades corporations and wonders when mainstream America will catch up with the times.
“Women have always been the ones who have held it down,” he said speaking of his own father who took off when he was just eight years old, leaving his mom to hold the family together emotionally and financially – working two jobs night and day because the pay just wasn’t there. “Now that women are getting more educated they should be making the same pay as a man, there is not a doubt in my mind.”
The Paycheck Fairness Act, which demands equal pay between the races, is due for another vote in the Senate this October. Van Pelt and Jenkins urge the community to contact Senators Nelson and Rubio, asking them to stand up for women and families by passing the act and gaining equal pay among the genders.