HOUGHTON - After five years at a Michigan engineering firm, and sterling performance reviews, Kerri Sleeman got a rude surprise. When the company filed for bankruptcy, she said, she found out the salaries of some of the co-workers under her.
"You can imagine my surprise, anger and heartbreak when I discovered ... I was making less money than all of the men I supervised," she said. "I couldn't believe it."
Sleeman joined Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, Thursday for a conference call about the Paycheck Fairness Act. The bill, intended to close the wage gap between male and female workers, failed to overcome a Senate filibuster for the third time this week.
Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette
Kerri Sleeman stands outside her current workplace at Michigan Technological University Thursday afternoon. From 1998 to 2003, Sleeman worked at a Michigan engineering firm she said paid her less than the male workers she supervised on the grounds that they were their families' sole breadwinners.
According to recent figures, women make 77 cents on the dollar of their male co-workers, which costs them an average of $13,000 a year. Stabenow said beyond the outrage of being paid less, there's a substantial economic impact.
"This is something that will affect women's economic security throughout their lives," she said. "We're taking about very significant, significant sacrifices women are making for simply not being paid equally through their work and not being valued equally through their pay."
Stabenow said some of the arguments she's heard against the bill have been "outrageous," including former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land's statement that women want flexibility instead of higher wages.
"Excuse me? Flex time won't pay for groceries. Flex time doesn't pay for gas in your car," Stabenow said. "When I look at my son versus my daughter, they both love their children and want to pick them up after school. That doesn't mean my daughter should be paid less."
Stabenow said the Senate will bring the issue back for another vote. She urged people across the country to contact their senators and encourage them to support the bill.
Sleeman, who testified in Washington last week on the bill, said it would bring about a culture where people had to question their unintentional biases when they set pay. She said she was disappointed by the vote, but more insulted by the statements made against it.
"It's like admitting that it's happening, and giving it the stamp of approval," she said. "For some of the senators that voted against it to say things like that, if they heard themselves say that, or had to say it to their own children and grandchildren, they'd realize how insulting that is."
Sleeman said she had been reluctant to talk about her experience with wage discrimination. Many people, she said, can't speak out because they still need that job, or that reference.
But for people further along in their careers and further from their incidents, Sleeman encouraged them to come forward.
"It's embarrassing, and no fun to be talking about this and reliving it ... but if we don't talk about it, then people will continue to say that it's not real," she said. "When you put a real story and a real face with issues, then that's when people understand."