Gloria Steinem: The best thing for the economy would be equal pay

Gloria Steinem, the feminist writer and activist, recently published a memoir called “My Life On The Road.” Its stories range from her father’s nomadic tendencies to her time in India after college to her trips around the country campaigning for political candidates.

In light of the new book, Steinem spoke with Fusion Money about closing the gender wage gap and the upcoming presidential election. The following has been edited for space and clarity.


Fusion: Do you have any practical advice for how young women and men can go about closing the gender wage gap? Or at least making salary more transparent?

Steinem: The person in the situation knows it best. So, I’m just offering ideas for the expert to choose from. Sometimes there just needs to be more information. For instance, sometimes the individual seeking the job doesn’t research the salaries that have been paid for that job in the past. Sometimes they are actually prevented from researching those facts. For instance, in New York State we had to pass an equal pay free speech act so people could not be fired for saying the one thing they actually know—which is how much they make.

It seems to vary from state to state. So, I guess the advice depends on what’s allowable within legal boundaries.

But, clearly, it’s a restriction on free speech to be forbidden to say what you earn as a salary. So, if that is a policy, it’s important to do away with that policy in whatever way we can—whether it’s a company-wide policy or whether it’s permissible in a particular state. But, in any case, I think the first goal is information.

There’s also a cultural taboo that has to be overcome. If I went up to some guy in my office and said, “Here’s what I make, what do you make?” it would be awkward. Do you have any ideas about how people can get around that and start to work towards more transparency?

If we think of it as a curb on our free speech, it helps us to defy it. And of course we need to be attuned to the person we’re talking to. It helps to have a level of friendship and trust before you broach this—don’t broach it with a stranger. But it is an issue of free speech: We have a right to say what we earn and it’s perfectly reasonable to ask someone else, and that knowledge helps us get past the cultural resistance. At the other end of the spectrum, we begin to understand we are doing something socially useful when we see that equal pay for women of all races would be the biggest economic stimulus the economy could possibly have.

That’s especially true as women have taken on more and bigger roles in the workplace. So, if women are more often breadwinners and more often obtaining higher education, it would be nice if they got paid the same as men.

Well, the educational level actually doesn’t matter because women at all levels are getting paid less. Both in the so-called “pink collar ghetto” of what used to be called clerical work, or administrative assistant work, and in the health field. Some areas are 70% or more female, so the whole category is underpaid. You might find, for instance, that a nurse is getting paid less than the garbage man who’s picking up garbage at her hospital.

It’s important to understand that equal pay would be the most important economic stimulus—way better than paying money to banks and investment houses, like we did in the last economic stimulus. Women are going to use that money, not put it in Swiss bank accounts. The poorest children are in female head of households; if those households have more economic alternatives, then there will be less need for government services. So, it’s a win-win situation because it both diminishes pressure on government services and tax dollars, and also increases the opportunities and welfare of individuals.

So, it is a gender issue but it’s a broader societal issue and broader economic issue for everyone.

Well, gender issues are societal issues. Society is wrongly divided into two, which makes no sense. We’re all human beings, after all.

Can you tell me about any personal experiences you’ve had, when you’ve realized a man was getting paid more than you?

My experiences are not different by category, but they are the experiences of a freelance writer. In other words, it wasn’t salary, it was getting paid for a specific article.

The most ironic that comes to mind is that Time magazine asked me to write an essay about the early women’s movement. It was a long time ago—it was maybe in the ’70s. First of all, they asked me to do it because they didn’t have a woman on staff. Secondly, I did it under deadline because it never occurred to me that they would pay me less than they did men writing the same essay. Time had a page in each issue in which there was a personal essay. When my agent got the check, he told me that I was getting paid less than men who wrote the same essay. So, I wrote the editor of Time and complained and he sent me a Gucci purse. I took the purse back to Gucci because I needed the money and tried to get cash for it and I couldn’t.

What about your day-to-day life now? Are you active in this debate about the pay gap?

Yes, it’s something that comes up in pretty much every meeting or speech or conference. We all try to share information and be helpful to each other and encourage each other or use any pressure points that we might have.

Do you feel like any progress has been made?

Remember that, in the beginning, it was thought that women should get unequal pay because the assumption was that they had husbands who were working and they didn’t need the money. So, in the beginning we had to prove that women did, indeed, need the money. In fact, if you added up all the men who already enough money to support themselves and their families until the time of their probable death, and then you added up all the women, it was men who didn’t need the money.

Is there anything from your book that speaks to the gender pay gap that people might want to pay particular attention to?

Because we’re entering into an important electoral year, there’s a story I put in about an election—Harriet Woods lost narrowly in Missouri. Then I tried to say what all the consequences were: For want of a nail the shoe is lost, the horse, the battle. I think that story might be encouraging for people who are feeling discouraged about the political system. (Editor’s note: Woods, a Democrat, lost a Senate race in 1982 by a small margin. Steinem argues the loss had wide-ranging negative consequences that can be avoided in the future if more people vote.)

If Hillary Clinton is elected president, will it be a symbolic win for women, or will it have a real impact on gender equality?

It would have actual impact not only because she’s a female human being but because of her policies. If Sarah Palin were president, it would be a step backward, so it’s not just about biology. Because Hillary is by far the most experienced—both internationally and nationally—and has the most innovative ideas, her election would clearly make a difference.

So, what does your gut say? Do you think she’s going to win?

My gut says, what’s going to happen is whatever we make happen, because the opposition is very clear. It’s about 30%—it’s not the majority of the country, but it’s a very well-financed, fervent right wing that probably sways about 30% of the country.

Well, it seems scary when Donald Trump is out there saying whatever it is he says in a given day, that he could be the president of the United States.

Well, there’s frequently a reliable 10 or 20% of the country that is still locked in racism—I mean, we all are, in varying degrees, of course—but those who think that racism is the proper way, or sexism is ordained by God. So, he can attract the hierarchical thinkers, and the haters.

That’s important context. I’m not a political reporter, so it didn’t occur to me to ask you about the election.

At a human level, what do we have? Rock bottom: We have our dollar power, we have our speech—our ability to speak out—and we have our voting power. And the voting booth is really the only place on earth where the most powerful and least powerful are equal.