Illustration by B T Livermore

"IN OREGON, women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. The figure is even lower for people of color. It has been this way literally forever."

With those words, Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner Brad Avakian opened the first meeting of the newly formed Oregon Council on Civil Rights last Thursday, July 16. On its very first day, the group of 25 Oregon civil rights leaders decided to tackle what is perhaps an impossible task: erasing the wage gap in Oregon.

Even in the nation's most wage-equitable state, California, women earn on average only 84 percent of what men earn annually, according to census data. The average Oregon woman makes $32,540 a year versus $42,390 for an Oregon man, ranking the Beaver State the 25th in wage equity.

Working without a definite deadline, Avakian tasked the council—which resembles a Captain Planet-like squad of high-profile leaders from diverse civil rights backgrounds—to create an action plan for making equal pay for equal work a reality in Oregon.

Linda Burgin, president of the state's largest union (Service Employees International Union 503) and an Oregon Council on Civil Rights member, knows all about gender discrimination from her previous job at the Census Bureau.

"The office was male dominated and they would throw me all the 'touchy-feely' demographic requests," recalls Burgin. As part of her job there, she used 1990 census data to show that even men in female-dominated occupations like nursing made more on average than women in the same field.

While it is clear that nationwide, women and people of color make far less than men, it's not certain what sort of "action plan" could eradicate the age-old difference.

A large portion of the wage gap is due to differing occupations within certain fields. In legal work, for example, where women on average take home $47,000 less annually than men, 82 percent of men in the legal field are lawyers, while 60 percent of women are assistants and secretaries.

But Commissioner Avakian is not content to write off wage discrepancies as personal job choices.

"What happens back in our educational institutions that limits access to those higher-paying occupations?" asks Avakian. The commissioner pointed out that in Oregon, jobs dominated by women (like nursing and clerical work) tend to be paid less than male-dominated fields (like construction and computer science).

"It's not just about what laws do we need, but how can we create a culture shift in this state?" says Avakian.

A 2007 study from the American Association of University Women also points out that the wage gap is not due entirely to job choices. Even after factoring in training, experience, and education, their report, "Behind the Pay Gap," found women earn 12 percent less than men working the same jobs.

"These unexplained gaps are evidence of discrimination," the national report concludes.

Midge Purcell deals locally with discrimination complaints for the Urban League of Portland. She says four to five people a week typically ask her to help with workplace discrimination, but doubts that simply rewriting laws will help combat environments where people are passed over for promotions or bullied because of their race or gender.

"A lot of these issues are difficult to prosecute in a court of law. They're difficult to document and people with limited means often are without access to lawyers," says Purcell.

Union President Burgin suggests requiring every company in the state to publish how much it pays each type of employee and criteria for raises, like public-sector employers do. Twenty-five thousand of her union's members work for government entities that publish salaries and racial or gender wage gap complaints are very, very rare, says Burgin.

"It's transparency about what people earn," agrees Purcell. "Having unequal pay in terms of race and gender is profitable for employers."

"Oregon has never waited around for other people to decide how to get things done," says Avakian. "If I thought it was impossible, I wouldn't have asked them to do it."