I used to wear a button that read “69 cents,” which was how much women earned for every dollar men did. The idea was that calling attention to the pay gap, along with education, hard work and politics, would close it. That was in 1980. For a while, it seemed to work: By the mid-1990s, women were earning roughly three-quarters of what men were.

But a funny thing happened on the way to equality. High school graduates got stuck in the 75-cent range. College-educated women started moving backward.

That’s right, backward.

The pay gap for women with college educations has actually increased in the last decade. As more women go to college, the ones who do make less, relatively speaking.

Forget about the symbols and tokens, the Nancy Pelosis and Hillary Clintons, whose presence could almost convince you, and do some, that discrimination is dead. According to Labor Department data, women with college degrees who are between 36 and 45 earned 74.7 cents on the dollar last year, down a penny from 10 years ago.

Progress? The figures are measured in pennies, but the gap is not a matter of small change. Put it this way: Women are 25 percent behind, and falling. The more you earn, the bigger the gap between what women and men make. The closer you get to the top, the further behind women are. Equality at the top is more elusive than ever.

My friends and students say it all the time: “I feel like we’re moving backward.” We are. At least the statistics prove that we’re not crazy.

Of course, no one sits around anymore and says, at least not out loud, that they don’t want women in top jobs. In fact, what you hear is always the opposite. If only we could find good women, or keep them.

How about paying them?

The most convenient answer is to blame us, women, for just not being ambitious enough. It’s all about our choices. Women are different, so the argument goes. More of us are staying home with young children, as if this explains why the ones who aren’t staying home are still making less. If you don’t want to work, fine.

But most women have no choice — no choice but to work, and earn less.

This is a choice? Our choice?

Or they say that we don’t value money as much, as if that explains why we should be happy to work just as hard for less of it. Hogwash. In my experience, the less money you have, the more you tend to value it.

Other studies have found that women are more likely to spend part of their careers working part-time, and that working part-time permanently depresses wages. This is often put forth as a “neutral” explanation, when it is anything but. You take a characteristic of women’s lives, use it as a justification for paying less and call it neutral? Would part-time work have that same impact if men were as likely to take such “breaks” as women? Besides, women who never work part-time, never take time off, still earn less than men.

It’s true, of course, that women are more likely to be found, even within the professions, in the less-well-paying jobs. Among doctors, women are more likely to be pediatricians and obstetricians than radiologists and surgeons. But there are two obvious answers to this — other than passive acceptance, that is. One is to look hard at the pay scales, and recognize that part of the reason certain specialties make less is not because they’re easier or less important, or even require less training, but because there are more women doing them. Another is to recruit more women to the high-paying ones.

Today, too often, we do neither. Buttons are passe. Most people aren’t even aware of the pay gap anymore, much less committed to addressing it. That’s the travesty. Pretending things are equal when they aren’t doesn’t make things better, but worse. When you close your eyes, you go backward. My “69 cents” button is getting too close for comfort.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and see works by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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