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April 2, 2019, 4:19 p.m. EDT

On Equal Pay Day, here’s what Rosie the Riveter would make today

Naomi Parker Fraley’s likeness became a feminist symbol, but companies during World War II may have contributed to today’s gender wage gap

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By Jacob Passy

Getty Images
A cancelled stamp features Rosie the Riveter saying ‘We Can Do It!’ The woman who inspired the image died in 2018 at 96.

While Rosie the Riveter has become an indelible feminist symbol, the woman who inspired the famous image may have unknowingly been a member of the first generation to experience the same gender wage gap that women do today.

Naomi Parker Fraley, who is believed to be the inspiration behind the wartime poster, died last year at the age of 96. The Rosie the Riveter image was created by Pittsburgh-based artist J. Howard Miller, and researchers believe that he based the poster on a photograph of a woman factory worker that was widely published in magazines in 1943.

Another woman, Geraldine Doyle, originally came forward saying she was the person in the photograph, and received plaudits when she died in December 2010 . Subsequently, James Kimble, a professor at Seton Hall University, uncovered evidence identifying Parker Fraley as the person in the image.

The image originally served as a rallying cry for women to take on jobs in factories and shipyards as men served in the military overseas during World War II. But the real Rosies across America during the 1940s may have inadvertently made matters more difficult for women today, said Joanna Krotz, author of “Being Equal Doesn’t Mean Being the Same.” “Unions were trying to make sure that women did not usurp men’s pay while our guys were overseas fighting for us,” Krotz said.

Companies wanted to ensure that women in the workforce would not depress wages for men when they returned home from war.

The wage gap then and now

Though government agencies proclaimed otherwise , there was a significant gap in the pay men and women received in the post-World War II era. And that gap persists today.

In the immediate post-war years, women workers earned roughly 60 cents for every dollar a man made. The median annual wage for female workers in 1950 was $1,579, as compared with $2,702 for men, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In 2017 dollars, that’s $14,417 and $24,671 respectively.

Similar disparities played out in specific professions: Women in manufacturing made a median annual wage of $1,524 ($13,914 when adjusted for inflation), while men earned $2,635 ($24,059 adjusted for inflation), or 58% more than women.

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In 1944, skilled female workers made an average weekly wage of $31.21 ($442 in 2017 dollars) while skilled male workers earned $54.65 weekly ($774 in 2017 dollars), according to “ The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s ” by historian Susan Hartmann. Between 1943 and 1945, polls showed that 47% to 68% of married women workers wanted to keep working after World War II.

Matters have certainly gotten better for women today, but there’s definitely still room for improvement. In 2014, women who worked full time on average made roughly 83 cents for every dollar a man earned, according to a the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Rosie the Riveters in today’s workforce aren’t as well off: They earned barely 71 cents on the dollar of what men were paid, according to the BLS report.

In the immediate post-war years, women workers only earned roughly 60 cents for every dollar a man made. Today, it’s 83 cents on the dollar.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all: The biggest wage gap is seen among personal financial advisers — women advisers make just over half what their male colleagues earn, according to an analysis from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research . One theory: Male clients, who have built more wealth because of the disparities in male and female earning power and seniority, may prefer male advisers.

In other fields, women are closer to achieving true wage parity. Women in food service, office administration and construction jobs earned more than 90 cents for every dollar a man made. Overall though, the gender pay gap worldwide isn’t expected to close for another century, according to the World Economic Forum.

World War II influenced equal pay policies

The War Labor Board, which included representatives from the government, unions, and employers, was set up in 1942 to handle labor disputes. Also under its jurisdiction were issues related industry wages. In 1942, the agency put out an order mandating equal pay for equal work— but in reality, women often got the short end of the stick, according to Krotz.

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Companies wanted to ensure that women in the workforce would not depress wages for men when they returned home from war. Therefore, some employers would make multiple women undertake a task that would typically be completed by one male worker so that the women weren’t doing the same work as men, Krotz said. And after the war, employers used the “wave the flag” mentality to justify laying off female employees in favor of WWII veterans returning home or moving women into other lower paid positions. “Women just got screwed — they were hardly feeling rosy,” Krotz said.

That trend didn’t only have negative repercussions though – some researchers have argued that it helped spark entrepreneurship among women in the post-war era who could no longer find work and who had fewer marriage prospects.

Some researchers have argued that it helped spark entrepreneurship among women in the post-war era who could no longer find work and who had fewer marriage prospects.

How the #MeToo movement could make a difference

The feminist activism spurred by the election of President Donald Trump and in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against men in many industries could make a major difference, Krotz said. The second Women’s March, for instance, focused on the need to elect more women into government, with activists calling for a “pink wave.”

“The path to legislative and social change is to elect more women to office, particularly on the state level where change is needed most,” Krotz said. “I’m hoping the Me Too movement will do that.”

Krotz emphasized the importance of legislators passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would force employers to justify pay discrepancies and penalize those who pay women less than their male coworkers.

But she also warned that developments need to be made in other arenas to ensure equality in the workplace — namely, men need to take on more of the burdens related to child care. “Until that becomes a men’s problem, I don’t know how we’ll solve the wage gap,” Krotz said.

And that is something, one imagines, Rosie the Riveter would have been very happy about.

This story was updated on April 2, 2019.

Jacob Passy is a personal-finance reporter for MarketWatch and is based in New York.

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