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Bulletin: Women are the equal of men. This startling revelation comes courtesy of the federal Victim Compensation Fund. It’s the first major settlement that recognizes women as being on par with men-at least in terms of future lost wages. The fund, which compensates victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, abandons a common tool relied upon to calculate compensatory awards in trials and settlements: gender-based economic tables that value the lost wages of men more highly. Although largely symbolic as a precedent, the fund’s decision has activist groups like the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund hoping that it will have a longer-term impact. The victim fund’s action “stops and erases the bias we know is inherent in women’s compensation,” says NOW LDF legal director Martha Davis. She is urging female plaintiffs attorneys and advocacy groups to use the data for males in compensatory damage awards. But female plaintiffs don’t have history on their side. For years the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics set the accepted standard; it weighted work-life expectancy tables by such factors as gender, education, and race. One fundamental assumption: Women will drop out of the workforce for several years to raise children. The table has had a marked effect. From 1993 to 1999, for instance, the wrongful death of an adult male averaged an overall median compensation of $800,000, but for women it was $626,500, according to a 2000 nationwide study conducted by Jury Verdict Research. Says feminist legal scholar Lucinda Finley of the State University of New York at Buffalo: “These tables reflect assumptions about interrupted work lives and women’s earning history that are becoming less and less reflective of women today.” Ignored is the increased number of women who have forgone childbirth since 1980, she says. Even when women do take time off to raise children, they are penalized in the data by having their work at home valued at zero, she says. The table used by the Victim Compensation Fund takes some of the criticisms into account. The fund’s special master, Kenneth Feinberg, chose a more generous male-based table because he anticipates changes in female workforce life expectancy over the next 20 years, says Deborah Greenspan, an attorney in Feinberg’s office. Judges already have the flexibility to go either way. More often, they are allowing a male-based workforce table to be used for a female plaintiff, especially if there is proof that the plaintiff had no intention of having children, says Walnut Creek, California, forensic economist Mel Fredlund. Still, some economists believe that the work-life expectancy tables should continue to recognize the discrepancy between the sexes, because that gap is real. Says Dale Funderburk, a Texas A&M University economist who has also written about the tables: “If you look at the data, women still do spend less time in the workforce than men. I know it’s not politically correct, but it’s accurate.”

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