April 17, 2014 WORCESTER — Of all the issues facing women discussed at a forum Wednesday at the United Way’s offices in the Denholm building, the one that the audience of mostly young women kept coming back to was the gap in pay between women and men.
Ophelia Okoh, 19, a member of the Bruce Wells Scholars Upward Bound program, said she had been aware of a much-referenced statistic reporting that, on average, a woman earns only $.77 for every dollar a man earns in the workplace.
“What I didn’t know was how it went beyond that,” said Ms. Okoh, a student at Worcester State University. “To find out that it goes lower and lower when you start talking about women of color.”
In front of a panel featuring Democratic U.S. Reps. James P. McGovern, Niki Tsongas and Katherine Clark, Ms. Okoh asked what she could do about it.
Ms. Tsongas said members of Congress have in fact pushed for more transparency regarding pay in the workplace, and said she supports legislation to allow discussion of what workers earn at a company.
“There’s a lot of effort to shine a light on just what those differences are,” Ms. Tsongas said.
Ms. Clark said it takes women until April to earn what a man earned in 2013. She told Ms. Okoh that once that transparency comes to the workplace, it will be up to women to use their negotiating skills to make sure their salaries are on par with men.
“Finding your voice on that is a good start,” Ms. Clark said.
The nearly 40 young women who participated represented most of the local groups funded through the United Way’s Women’s Initiative. Pamela Boisvert, chairman of the Women’s Initiative, said the program aims to promote philanthropy and leadership among women in the community. Wednesday’s forum was directed at emerging young leaders.
Ms. Tsongas noted that she ended up going to Boston University to study law in the 1960s because at the time the school was only one of a few actively recruiting women to study law.
She said equal pay issues bleed into other issues that disproportionately affect women and families, like hunger and food security. She urged the young women in the audience to use their votes to support candidates who support women’s issues. And she encouraged them to seek political positions of power.
“We can’t win if we don’t run,” Ms. Tsongas said.
Other groups represented Wednesday included the YOU Inc. ASCEND program, the Hope Coalition, the Southeast Asian Coalition, Just Us Girls, All Kinds of Girls at Clark University, Latinas In Search of Success, the Latino Education Institute at Worcester State University, Girls Voice, Dear World: Voices of Worcester Girls, the Girls Choice Program and Girls Promoting Safety.
Kefiana Kabati, 18, a freshman at Clark University who also represented Upward Bound Wednesday, said it was good to hear the different perspectives on women and leadership. She said she was glad to hear the representatives reference specific legislation, which she said showed her that they are actually trying to do something about it, rather than just talk.
Sonisha Peralta, 15, a student at Burncoat High School, said she was glad to hear talk about how women are treated around the world, not just in America. She said there’s a lot of focus here about how women are underpaid, but said in other parts of the world it can be a challenge for women to gain even an equal level of respect in society.
“Around the world women are still treated as lower than men,” Ms. Peralta said.
Steven H. Foskett Jr.