Elizabeth Daley

Pop-up boutique takes gender pay gap discussion to New Orleans

‘Pay what you’re paid’ shop in Pittsburgh charged women 76 percent; in Louisiana that will drop to 66 percent

PITTSBURGH — Elana Schlenker’s small pop-up shop, which opened on a struggling businesses corridor in April, drew customers, news crews and guest speakers not solely for its female-made merchandise but also its premise. At 76 < 100, as the boutique was called, men paid full price, while women paid 76 percent of that.

Schlenker wants to draw attention to gender-based wage inequality, prevalent around the world. In Pennsylvania, women take home 76 cents to each man’s dollar. The store’s slogan was “Pay what you’re paid,” and for the month of April, customers did. 

Now, Schlenker is looking to take her wage-gap crusade down south to Louisiana. “The gap there is even worse — it’s 66 percent,” she said regarding the statewide disparity. "We want to keep going with what really worked well in Pittsburgh and continue the great energy," wrote photographer Tammy Mercure, Schlenker's New Orleans-based collaborator. 

At the chic store on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh, items for sale ranged from honey collected by a female beekeeper to books by the Guerilla Girls art activist collective, with a quarter of products produced locally. Schlenker sourced female talent to cater events and design and build the store's modern wooden displays.  

For the New Orleans pop-up, Mercure is scouting locations primarily in the Central Business District and the pair are aiming for a November opening.

"People in New Orleans are joiners," Mercure explained in an email, sharing that the store has already secured grant funding. "The city is also very tech-friendly, so I'd like to host another Art + Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon," Mercure wrote, referring to a Wikipedia editing session she participated in, aimed at representing female artists online. 

In Pittsburgh, patrons were drawn to the shop for its programming but gender-based pricing was also an attraction.

Inside the 76

“I get a little nervous when I have to tell men about the prices,” Schlenker said while running 76 < 100 one day, “but I have had mostly positive reactions. A lot of the men tell me about women they support in their lives.”

Fred Blauch, a 76 < 100 customer and self-described feminist, said he was raised by a single mother and appreciated the store’s premise. “It’s a wake-up call to men that we do come from a privileged place and we should acknowledge that,” he said.

Another male shopper, Nathan Shaulis, agreed. “If the idea behind it was just to charge differently for something arbitrary, I might be offended,” he said, “but it’s not just a retail store like any other. There is a social activist message.”

The items for sale at 76 < 100 were made by female artists and craftspeople, with about a quarter of the products produced locally. 

Schlenker, a Pittsburgh-based freelance graphic designer, said she got the idea for her temporary store from an art project she read about. “The artist had printed copies of a work and charged women $1 and men $2,” she said, explaining that she was reading articles on the wage gap at the time, and the ideas converged.

“A lot of the people, particularly the women, smile when I tell them about the price tags,” she said. “It’s tongue in cheek. I don’t really believe in discrimination. That’s why I am doing this. This is a positive place. It’s not about punishing men.”

According to the Center for American Progress, almost half the wage gap is based on occupational differences between men and women, with women concentrated in industries that offer lower pay and fewer benefits. Women may also take time away from the workforce to raise children, reducing years of experience. However, even when accounting for these disparities, economists found that over 40 percent of the gap is still unexplained.

“Considerable research has shown that women are perceived to be less competent than men who posses the same skills and background,” reads a pamphlet Schlenker produced for the store. The flier cites dismal studies by the Harvard Business School and Yale University and doubles as a giant poster, emblazoned with the words “Women are worth more” in large green letters.

Fair compensation has nudged its way to the forefront of national conversation, with increasing public pressure to raise the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 (where it has remained since 2009), the Fight for $15 campaign (aimed at obtaining higher wages for fast-food employees) and lawsuits targeting unpaid internships.

Mary-Wren Ritchie, a Planned Parenthood employee who attended a panel discussion on the wage gap at 76 < 100, said she was frustrated by the injustice.

“It’s insane that it’s 2015 and we are still fighting to make an equal wage,” she said. “The system was built by men to benefit men, and we work so hard to be on an equal playing ground, but it sucks that we are still fighting.”

‘It’s tongue in cheek. I don’t really believe in discrimination. That’s why I am doing this. This is a positive place. It’s not about punishing men.’

Elana Schlenker


Women attend a wage negotiation workshop at 76

It is illegal to pay a woman less than a man for performing the same work. But according to the Department of Labor many companies have nondisclosure agreements that require employees keep their wages secret, leaving undercompensated workers in the dark. Such agreements are largely illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.

A woman who attended a wage negotiation workshop at 76 < 100 said she was happy to have received her job offer at a large retail company and didn’t negotiate her starting salary. She said the employer told her she was not allowed to discuss her wages with fellow employees. 

“I broke company rules by telling one of my future colleagues how much I was making, and she was able to negotiate and get a higher salary than I am currently making,” the woman said. “I am happy she’s doing better but it’s also kind of disappointing personally.”

Wage secrecy hurts women in particular, according to Carnegie Mellon University economist Linda Babcock, who said women are less likely to negotiate for higher wages than male colleagues. Women are also more likely to agree with the statement “my company pays me a fair wage” than men are, Babcock said, citing a 2003 study by Lisa Barron.

Babcock, whose research informed the store’s wage negotiation workshop led by her students, said men were more likely to think it was their responsibility to obtain a fair wage. In a 2002 study of graduating Carnegie Mellon seniors, she found that only 12.5 percent of women were likely to negotiate for higher wages, compared with 51.5 percent of men. She said part of the reason for lack of negotiation among women is conditioning.

“Women are taught that they are supposed to be looking after other people and not thinking about themselves,” she said. “Something that might seem fine for a man to do — like negotiate effectively — might be viewed differently if a woman is doing it.”

At the training, Babcock’s students said negotiating successfully as a woman might involve a cooperative style of negotiation more in line with stereotypically feminine behavior — a help-me-help-you approach. While such behavior may produce more successful results, some women resist playing into female stereotypes.

“I have never been the type of get-super-dolled-up woman,” said publisher Christina French, an entrepreneur invited to speak at the shop. “I think women are most successful when we are being who we are.”

Babcock agreed. “We have to be really supportive of assertive women, no matter how they choose to do it,” she said. “We shouldn’t just have one way that’s acceptable.”

Though Babcock’s work aims to improve women’s status, she said she is often afraid her research might be used to reinforce negative gender stereotypes.

“I worry that people then think, ‘Well if women are like this, then it’s OK that we have this wage gap’ or ‘It’s OK that we treat women negatively when negotiating,’ but I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “If we just stop talking about it, I don’t think that solves the problem either.”

These are conversations that Schlenker hopes will continue at 66 < 100 in the fall. 

“I just hope female artists will be OK with selling at that ratio,” she said.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter