Florence St. John: An Early Case in Pay Equity for Women

In 1928, Florence St. John joined 30 other women in the sheet metal department at the Olds Motor Works in Lansing, Michigan. She certainly had no idea that she would become a pioneer in the struggle for equal pay for women, and her story is told in the October 2022 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. It is a riveting true story, and several of its elements will seem familiar to those who have paid attention to women’s ongoing quest for equal pay.

  • Women in the factory did the same work as men, and it was heavy and technically demanding work. But they were paid less.
  • Women only found out about the pay disparity by chance. The workers played a game called “check pool” with their paychecks, revealing the amount, and the women noticed that men with similar jobs made more money.
  • Sympathetic men provided essential support when, in 1936, the women started their quest to close the pay gap. The first was Forrest Brown, a union representative who took a position with the Michigan Department of Labor and started to investigate the factory. Later, in 1938, the women secured representation by Bernard Pierce and Joseph Planck, attorneys in Lansing. Their case was based on an obscure Michigan law that made it a misdemeanor to “discriminate in any way in the payment of wages as between sexes.” This law had never been enforced before.
  • The company, General Motors (GM) tried everything they could to escape having to pay the women equally for equal work. First, they moved the women to a newly created “women’s division” where they were supposed to do less demanding work. But the women were still making some of the heavy parts they had made before. Next GM tried to attack the constitutionality of the Michigan equal pay law. Then they tried to deny that women were doing the same work as men, but a foreman testified that women did in fact do heavy work. They brought forth a parade of witnesses to testify to the superior strength and ability of men. Finally, GM tried to claim that women were not paid less, but their lawyers forced GM to bring in the damning payroll records
  • The trial in 1941 was lengthy and was followed by three years of GM appeals. Finally, the women were awarded $55,690 in back pay. By that time two women in the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau had used St. John’s case to convince the War Labor Board to equalize pay rates between men and women.

Several factors made this lawsuit successful: the Michigan equal pay law, the fact that it was also a pioneering class action suit, and of course the determination of the women and their attorneys. As stunning as it is, this successful lawsuit was only recently brought to light by David Engstrom, a scholar tracing the history of class action suits. Engstrom wrote that it was “almost certainly the first significant damages payout in a job discrimination case in the case history of U.S. law.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Florence St. John, who died in 1970, could have known that the CEO of GM today is a woman, Mary Barra?

A Letter on Florida Proposed Constitutional Amendment 2

We often hear of job growth, but what we don’t hear is whether these jobs pay a living wage. Amendment 2 would raise the minimum wage in Florida to $15 over six years. Twenty-seven states have raised their minimum wage since 2014. 

What is a living wage? AAUW Florida recently commissioned studies on the economic security of Florida retired, Hispanic, and Black women. These studies use realistic estimates of living expenses based on locality and family type, and include some retirement and emergency savings. Many of these women are not economically secure.

A single mother with one preschooler and one child in school, in a job without benefits, needs $60,420 annually, not including extras such as Internet, which is almost a necessity for that student. Our studies found that women of color tend to be concentrated in such occupations. The current minimum wage provides only $17,800 annually.

How can she survive on $8.56 per hour? Food stamps, friends and family, a second job, and skimping. An hourly wage of $15 might enable her to skimp less, improving the health and security of her family.

But won’t a $15 minimum wage destroy jobs and businesses? Not according to numerous economic studies. Check out the myths and facts about minimum wage increases at https://bit.ly/30xD2WW.

AAUW members and branches: Click the link below for more talking points on Amendment 2.

Advocate for Fair Pay Legislation in Florida!

AAUW of Florida has an urgent request for your advocacy in the pay equity area, and you don’t even have to leave home! We need you to write a physical letter or email from your own address next week if possible. The Florida legislative session is short and committees will stop meeting in a few weeks. We have been advised that mass emails are usually simply deleted, so personal messages are of great importance.

The “ask” of your message will be: “Please schedule House Bill 739 (or recommend it for scheduling) for a hearing in the Business and Professions Subcommittee as soon as possible.” This bill has been filed for the fourth time in the Florida legislature, and it has never been heard in committee. It would have to be favorably reported out of three committees before it could reach the House floor, but the first step is a hearing in the first committee to which it has been assigned.

Please write a personal message to the chair of the committee, Representative Heather Fitzenhagen; the vice chair, Representative Amber Mariano; and the Speaker of the House, José Oliva. If the Speaker says not to schedule the bill, it will not be scheduled. Addresses are below.

House Bill 739 and its companion Senate Bill 90 provide the following protections:

  • Employers can’t retaliate against individuals involved in legal proceedings to enforce the law
  • Employers can’t retaliate against employees who discuss wages
  • Employers can’t reduce another employee’s pay to comply
  • Employers can’t request salary history
  • Employers can’t provide less favorable career opportunities based on sex

In addition, employer defenses are clarified: they must be job-related and agreement for a lesser wage is not a defense. The law, if passed, would apply to all employees including those covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (which has fewer protections).


  • I am requesting a hearing in the Business and Professions Subcommittee for HB 739, Discrimination in Labor and Employment. (this doesn’t have to come first–use your own thoughts, but do include it somewhere).
  • Include some of the talking points in the documents listed above (Pay Equity Florida for Legislators, Further fair pay talking points)
  • Thank the Chair/Vice Chair/Speaker for their attention and work for the people of Florida.

Thank you for being an advocate for women’s economic security in Florida.

Pat DeWitt, AAUW Florida President-elect and Economic Security Chair

Pay Equity Audits and State Procurement

Rep. Fentrice Driskell and Sen. Lori Berman have filed bills, H 633, S 652: State Procurement, that would reward state contractors who establish a process for determining that they pay men and women equally for equal work. The Department of Management Services would establish a certification program, and procurement would favor certified contractors.

You may wonder, as I did, how the criteria would be established for ensuring pay equity. The company payscale.com does some very interesting research and has some excellent suggestions as to how to conduct a pay audit.

In the recorded webinar I viewed, a researcher from payscale.com reported on his and other research showing that if you control for all the factors influencing salary, the pay difference between men and women is only about 2%. He stated that both the controlled and the uncontrolled pay gap are important. The control factors include such things as years of experience and job category. Biases are built into these, because women may take time out of the workforce and they are often funneled into job types that pay less. He showed research comparing men and women at early career, midcareer, and late career stages. At mid and especially late career, women are less likely to hold managerial and executive positions than men.

The presenters pointed out that pay equity laws are becoming more stringent in certain states and that this trend is likely to continue. Therefore, a company needs to protect itself against lawsuits by complying in advance with proper pay equity standards and by monitoring bias. One thing to look out for is that the job description for an individual should match what they are actually asked to do, especially when elements of that job description are compensable.

A large company can do advanced statistical analysis to study pay equity using multiple regression, but that takes specialized knowledge which is not usually available to a small company. Even if they hire an outside consultant with expertise, they may not have enough employees to yield satisfactory statistical results. However, the presenters suggested certain analyses that could be done using Excel (or a tool that they provide). First the company needs to collect data including job type, job level, demographics, full or part-time status, performance ratings if they exist, and of course pay. He stated that the gender breakdown across department/job group/job level may explain a lot of the uncontrolled pay gap, due to occupational segregation. That needs to be compared with appropriate outside reference groups.

To start the analysis, employees should be grouped by job family (such as accountants), job title, and similar departments might be grouped together. Once the groups are determined, the salary range can be calculated. The presenter suggested two statistics to describe where the individual falls in the salary range: the range penetration, which is simply how far up the individual salary falls within the salary range; and the compa-ratio, which is the salary divided by the range midpoint. (That midpoint would be the median rather than the average.) Then the analyst would compare the different demographic groups according to the statistics. The example shown was Accountant I, male versus female, showing that the range penetration of the males was 48% compared with 30% for the females. Excel could calculate a simple statistical test using this number, but the power of that test would be dependent on the number of employees involved. The presenter suggested that when looking at the data in a systematic way, the employer would probably be able to see where the problems are.

The presenter stated that if a lawsuit were involved, the fact that the company conducted a good-faith analysis would be persuasive. The methodology itself would be of secondary consideration at this point in time. Also, if employees know that the employer is looking carefully at pay equity, they might be less likely to sue. That good-faith effort was also described in the following suggestions that a company can use to ensure pay equity:

What else can you do to ensure pay equity?

  • Look at your promotion velocity.
    • Examine your processes and identify areas where bias can come in.
  • Have a clearly defined process for promotions.
  • Price a position, not a candidate
  • Encourage employees to discuss pay-related matters.
    • Talk to employees about how your pay decisions are made.
  • Audit your pay practices on a regular basis
  • Analyze your talent acquisition sourcing practices.
    • Identify areas where bias can come in.

Pay Gap Update With Florida Statistics

This is a draft of a potential op-ed that you may use as needed. I don’t have the update on Florida’s Helen Gordon Davis Fair Pay Protection Act bill yet. I am waiting on that update and announcement before sending this in:

AAUW’s annually updated publication, The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap, (http://bit.ly/1baHZaW) has come out and the big news is—there is no change. The difference between typical (median) salaries for full-time men and women workers is the same as last year: women made only 80% of what men made. The data for this comparison comes from the Department of the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it includes all occupations. However, the AAUW report includes some information about the pay gap within occupations: the earnings ratio in financial managers is 69%, while in registered nurses it is 91% (yes, male nurses make more!)

State-level statistics are available, and Florida scores well on them, with women in Florida earning 87% of typical male salaries. But what could a woman or family do with the $5,474 difference between the median male salary of $41,586 and the median female salary of $36,112? The pay gap affects families: over 40% of women function as primary or co-breadwinners in their families.

Closing the pay gap would reduce poverty. In Florida, there are almost a million family households with a female householder and no husband present. 25 percent of these households statewide are below the poverty level. In District 4 (Rutherford), there are 26,882 such households, representing 14% of all families, with 16% below the poverty level. In District 5 (Lawson), things are worse: 53,545 female householders representing 34% of all families, with 29% of them below poverty level. 

To close the pay gap, we need to encourage young women to choose better-paying careers, encourage employers to analyze their pay structure with an eye to equity, and pass legislation prohibiting factors that generate the pay gap. Since 1963, equal pay for equal work has been the law, but it is difficult to prove because of lack of salary transparency and the ease of making excuses for pay differences.

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