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Recently, Leslie Morgan Steiner (author of Mommy Wars) wrote an inspired piece in her column on Mommy Track’d, arguing that Paula Abdul (formerly of American Idol fame) could actually be a poster woman for the gender pay equity issue as she was reportedly offered only a fraction of colleagues’ Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest’s pay scales. (Paula was reportedly offered $2-5 million per year, while Simon and Ryan reportedly are contracted to make $30 million and $15 million per year, respectively.)

Many disagreed (including yours truly!) with Steiner’s assessment that gender discrimination was the headline of the recent American Idol media saga. Frankly, I am reluctant to advocate for a real world scenario in which women rely on the gender card to overcome other issues, such as bizarre and controversial behavior in the workplace.

(Disclaimer: I love all things American Idol, and will indeed miss Paula, but even I cannot overlook the fact that she has a history of bizarre and controversial behavior that is, at times, distracting from the contestants’ singing performances.)

But I understand the outrage that underlies Leslie Morgan Steiner’s article. And I understand why, on the surface, the Paula Abdul story hearkens as an interesting metaphor for the gender pay equity issue. The numbers don’t add up. Paula sits next to Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson and does the same thing they do: judges singing performances. And she makes less money to do so. Much less. Are there reasons for the pay discrepancy like ratings and demographics and the popularity of Simon Cowell? Maybe. But in corporate America, when women are paid less, there is always a REASON put forth. The question is, are the reasons valid? Are they fair?

As Steiner pointed out in a comment to her own article (in response to other comments):

“it's not Paula Abdul, millionaire diva choreographer, being discriminated against. It's the single mom with five kids who's being paid less than half her male colleague. Because I've seen exactly that happen, again and again, at fantastic Fortune 500 "Working Mother's Top 50" companies. Pay discrimination against women, particularly mothers, is widespread and rampant in the corporate and legal and government worlds. We simply don't live in a fair society.”

Ah, ok, then, now we’re getting somewhere. Paula is not the issue. She’s only a vague reminder of the real issue. Women don’t make as much as male colleagues. But MOMS, they fare even worse. In Motherhood Manifesto, Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner argue that while women reportedly make 76 cents to a man’s dollar, the reality is that this number is skewed UP by the fact that non-mothers earn 10 percent less than their male colleagues and mothers earn between 34-44 percent less. Thus, Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner argue, the “wage gap, to a large degree, is therefore a direct reflection of bias against working mothers.”

So maybe it’s hard to get all worked up about Paula because she’s not a mom, and hasn’t made the same sacrifices we all have. She hasn’t had to negotiate flex-time for a pay cut so that she could be there for her kids while still being asked to come to meetings on days off or finish projects late into the nights and weekends in contravention of her properly negotiated flex-time schedule. Hasn’t had to watch as male colleagues get the best and most highly visible projects so that their prospects for advancement are all but secured. Hasn’t had to manage that sick to the stomach feeling when a child wakes up sick to his stomach on the day of an important meeting at work.

Or maybe it’s hard to get all worked up about Paula because she was reportedly offered $5 million. I'm just not sure.

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Tags: Abdul, Paula, equity, fair, mom, pay, working

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Comment by Terry Starr on August 21, 2009 at 10:55am
In the words of Randy Jackson, I think Paula got "dawwged." I'd like to see a job description for Simon and Paula - and be able to compare notes. I think the HR community would have something to say about this as well.
Comment by Bradi Nathan on August 20, 2009 at 10:32pm
Paula is indeed freakish on Idol often rambling with no point or end in sight. I tend to agree with you in this case that she was in fact paid appropriately. It is clear that women, mothers in particular, get paid far less. And, I do hope that with the Fair Pay Act in place that things "will be a changing!"
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