Dear Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts: Isn’t Equal Pay Good News for the Rest of Us?

HK_Central_Pacific_Place_shop_Burberry_clothing_June-2013Burberry’s Chief Executive Officer has the distinction of being the highest paid Chief Executive Office in Britain.

What makes this news and why should we care?

Well, because Burberry’s CEO is a woman — 53-year-old Indianapolis native Angela Ahrendts has an executive compensation package worth 16.9 million pounds, almost 5 million pounds more than the next highest paid British executive, according to The Guardian.  At  current rates, 16.9 million pounds is more than $26 million US dollars.

But as The Huffington Post reported, this good news for one doesn’t translate into good news for the many:

“While Ahrendts’ achievement marks a significant step forward for high-powered women on either side of the pond, women in both countries still face many obstacles to reaching Ahrendts’ position. In Britain, Ahrendts is one of just three female CEOs running the country’s top companies. In the U.S., women make up just 4 percent of the CEOs at S&P 500 companies.”

Pay inequality for women isn’t just at the executive level.  President Obama this week celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Equal Pay Act which was designed to level the playing field for women who often made less than men in the same jobs. Except that 50 years later, women still haven’t achieved pay equity, so I’m not so sure why we’re celebrating.

One reason I don’t think we should be celebrating is Rosie the Riveter, the image that represented the women who kept the home fires burning and built airplanes during World War II, who suddenly found themselves without work when the men came home from war.  The prevailing attitude among many employers at the time was that women seeking so-called “man’s work” were stealing the birthright of the American male. Many of us know women who “ran the shop” and still made less than male co-workers who did less.

Fifty years ago, the signing of the Equal Pay Act was supposed to curb inequalities in the workplace.  When I started working in 1979, women made 73 cents for every dollar that a man made, up from forty-some cents when the Equal Pay Act was signed 16 years earlier. Remember how an Enjoli perfume ad suggested young women celebrate women’s progress by bringing home the bacon, and frying it up in a pan? I’m not sure how much bacon those women can afford today, since women who work full-time, year-round  make 77 cents for every dollar than a man makes.

On his first day in office in 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which granted rectifications for individuals who proved wage discrimination. The law did not benefit Ledbetter who faced years of wages lower than male co-workers at a tire plant in Alabama. However, the law honors her by legislating penalties for pay discrimination based on gender, age, religion, national origin and disability. But that honor still doesn’t mandate equal pay for equal work.

The good news

Childless women under 30 had a median salary eight percent higher than their male counterparts in 2010, when women in that age group had more education, specifically a college degree. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau women had a pay advantage over male counterparts, especially if they had children later in their careers, rather than early on.

The bad news

That somewhat positive statistic reflects the only time in life a woman has a pay advantage. Having children is a huge factor for women in making less money over a lifetime than men in the same jobs, according to Joan Williams, professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, who popularized the term “maternal wall,” the discrimination against hiring or promoting mothers based on the assumption she will be less committed to her job as a result of being a mother.

Say what?

Fifty years after President Kennedy penned the Equal Pay Act, there’s still disagreement about whether it is a good thing for women.

Sabrina Schaefer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative think tank, attributes what she called the “motherhood penalty” in wages to women working fewer hours or taking time off, by choice.  She told NPR that she believes less experience adds up to less pay:

“I absolutely think that we would be better off without the Equal Pay Act,” Schaeffer says. “We often talk as if men and women live in a vacuum, and as if what’s good for my husband or what’s good for me doesn’t benefit the other person.  At the end of the day, as I see it, our interests are tied. So I think that the idea of a ‘motherhood penalty’ is a little outdated.”

So back to Burberry’s Ahrendts, who has been somewhat controversial on the issue of women in business.  The 2013 #53 Forbes Most Powerful Woman in the World, opposes government mandates for quotas of females on company boards in Britain:

 “Just put the best person into the job. It is not about gender, it is about experience, leadership and vision. A man could do this job.”

While Ahrendts now holds title to the highest paid CEO in Britain, the married mother of three is greatly outflanked in wages by her American male counterparts. Many CEOs in America with higher salaries than Ahrendts, including Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch.

I say “bully for you!” to Burberry’s CEO on her accomplishments because a rising tide indeed lifts all boats. But I can’t help but long for the day when the idea that paying qualified women the same as qualified men is not news, it’s just smart business. And that women business leaders focus on that, as well as their male counterparts.

UPDATE: October 15, 2013.  Apple announced that Ahrendts is taking a position at the helm of their retail division, and is now the lone female on the Apple management team.

Amy McVay Abbott is the author of “The Luxury of Daydreams” (2011), a collection of essays available on all book sites, and the forthcoming collection of newspaper columns, “A Piece of Her Mind” (2013).  She is a health writer by profession, and writes a bi-weekly newspaper column called “The Raven Lunatic” that runs in multiple Midwestern newspapers.  Follow her on Twitter at @ravenonhealth or visit her website at www.amyabbottwrites.com.

  • greenheron

    Our graduating class this year was about 75% women, the highest it has ever been. Routinely now, classes have two or three young men, the rest women. Not that a degree in art or the humanities is going to assist these young people in earning a significant income on graduation, but in ten years, these ratios will have made their way to the workforce. Another interesting thing is how classroom chemistry has changed as the number of male students diminishes. The women get tougher, more competitive.

  • Joan Haskins

    Excellent piece, Amy.
    “But I can’t help but long for the day when the idea that paying qualified women the same as qualified men is not news, it’s just smart business.”

    Well, yes…

  • Lezlie Bishop

    Just put the best person in the job. If that were to happen 100% of the time, it wouldn’t be long before women dominated the ranks of American CEOs. The problem is, the meaning of the word “best” is often tainted with the unspoken word “man” that follows it.

  • Anne Born
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