UW Law student Harlan Mechling couldn’t go to his little sister’s graduation from Willamette University, but his father did call to tell him she was graduating as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a nation-wide honor society, with 42 other women and 16 men. Those numbers stood out to Mechling, instigating his research on gender inequity.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that’s not surprising because it’s consistent with my experience,” Mechling said. “Throughout my life, girls have always been at the top of the class.”
Mechling’s research revealed that women account for more than 60 percent of students graduating with honors, 9 percent higher than their percent of the student population. Despite these feats, most women will likely be getting paid only 78 percent of what their male colleagues will earn.
Kellye Testy, dean of the UW School of Law, believes her students face persistent gender discrimination once they’re out in the work world.
“One of the areas I’ve always been interested in is legal education,” Testy said. “We’ve been admitting women in law school a roughly equal number as men for a few decades now.
But if you look at the world and the number of CEOs, governors, law school deans, etc., the percentage of women is much lower than it should be.”
She clarified that it is not just the UW law school that is graduating equal numbers of men and women.
Mechling’s research used statistics from Phi Beta Kappa. He gathered stats from emails sent out to those who qualified and the number of people in the society, from 27 private and public universities. Mechling wanted to measure academics because it was one of the only measurements that was consistent across universities in different states.
He began his research thinking maybe the high percentage of women in honors was just a Northwest thing, but was surprised to find consistency among schools.
The research paper Mechling created, titled “Follow California’s lead — help women recover damages for workplace sex/gender discrimination,” also states that even with the same amount of work experience, women teachers are paid 11 percent less than male teachers within a year of graduating college. In business and management jobs, women make 86 percent of what men are paid. In sales it is even less, with women earning 77 percent of what men get paid, according to Mechling.
Testy believes it is because of implicit bias. She said gender equity is certainly moving in the right direction, but there’s a long history in the United States of gender discrimination.
Mechling said one way to address these issues is for states to have better non-discrimination laws.
“The best solution is a federal law amending the Equal Pay Act of 1973,” Mechling said. “There have been attempts to do that, but House Republicans keep shooting it down. I think the state is the only way it’s going to work because Congress has shown repeatedly that it’s not going to happen on the federal level.”
States tend to interpret the Equal Pay Act very broadly, according to Mechling. Usually there are four defenses for unequal pay and gender inequity, one of which allows employers to justify pay disparity as long as it’s any factor other than sex.
Cited in his research, the American Bar Foundation found only 6 percent of employment discrimination filings between 1987 and 2003 went to trial. Only one-third of those cases were successful. Even for employment discrimination cases, 40 percent are dismissed or lost at summary judgment.
Martina Kartman, a UW law student who was an intake investigator at the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, did the initial interviews at the office to determine if a discrimination case would be taken or not.
“I think one of the things that was most difficult about discrimination laws and enforcing them is that they are from the ‘60s,” Kartman said. “Our laws haven’t always kept up with change.”