Are 1960s pay practices staging a return?


The Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963. Twenty years later it was still common for employers to pay married men with children more than single men, and women were paid even less.

It was 1983 when I was told that my gender and marital status determined my pay rather than what I was responsible for or how well I performed my job. When I was hired by a college to administer their National Direct Student Loan program it had a default rate of 17.6 percent. Four years later it was down to 6.3 percent.

Because loan payments were up and the defaults were down the college was eligible for hundreds of thousands more grant dollars and more loan funds were available to students. None of that mattered when it came to what I was paid. I was paid the standard rate for an unmarried woman. My boss fought for some recognition of my performance and I was given an “exceptional” 5-cents-an-hour increase.

The improved performance of the college’s loan program was recognized and highlighted in a trade magazine. Wells Fargo Bank noticed and offered me a job. Of course I took it.

The bank cared about one thing: job performance. It kept track of what I did and based my pay on work results. Single or married, kids or no kids — it didn’t make a whit of difference; they were paying me to do a job and the better I performed the more I was paid. It made sense.

Wells Fargo gave me the opportunity to work in human resources and become a compensation analyst. It would be my responsibility to evaluate a job and recommend pay based on objective criteria: What are the job responsibilities? What kind of knowledge and skill are required? What impact does the job have on the customer? What impact does the job have on revenue or costs?

Pay was based on an employee’s responsibility, the complexity of the job and the financial impact on the company. Gender and marital status had no impact. Pay decisions were pretty easy to explain to employees.

In 1988, 25 years after the Equal Pay Act was signed, I was working for a corporation with companies it had purchased and my job was to make sure human resources and pay practices complied with regulations and fix anything that didn’t.

Over the 1980s I saw fewer and fewer examples of pure pay discrimination, but one 4,000 employee company is memorable. There were no women in any kind of supervisory position. The male management team had no idea how to relate to me. I was young, female and my employer had bought their company and I had authority over their pay and bonus plan.

They wanted to make sure I was happy. but didn’t know how to entertain me. The men decided that I might enjoy attending a baby shower in the evening and arranged an invitation for me. I declined and explained that I spent evenings preparing for the next day’s meetings.

While doing my work I saw that one of their employees was generating millions in revenue administering a coupon redemption program but was earning just $17,000 a year. I was sure it was a mistake and asked the department manager to double-check my information. He did a little checking and confirmed that a female clerk was administering the coupon program and our information was correct.

I can still see him across the table from me as I asked if $17,000 was a fair wage for what she was contributing to the company. He told me that she was a single mother happy to have a steady paycheck and good benefits. And she wasn’t complaining; her pay was in line with what most of the women earned.

We evaluated the pay of all employees and identified many people, male and female, who were badly underpaid. I developed a plan to fix the pay inequities and keep the cost of labor within budget, developed a new market based pay structure and new policies. Now I just needed to review everything with the company president.

When I sat down with him he didn’t look at my report or detailed spreadsheets. He asked for the overall cost of adjustments. I told him the equity increases would total $200,000 for the year, and asked if he would like to review the details. He declined and then politely asked for my opinion on the options for the cafeteria’s new tablecloths: Should they go with a butterfly or floral pattern?

The Equal Pay Act was signed 50 years ago in June, 1963. A few weeks ago a young woman explained to me that she was quitting her job because her boss told her not to expect much of a pay increase because her husband earned a good income.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.


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