The more things change, the more they stay the same. If you’re a woman worker, that is.
Nearly 50 years after passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, unequal pay remains a corrosive problem for women and their families. When President John Kennedy signed that legislation, he called it “a first step.” He might have added: the first step in a long and difficult journey.
Since the passage of the Equal Pay Act, the pay gap has closed at a snail’s pace. If you were a woman worker entering the workforce in 1963, your pay was just 63% of the wage received by a man doing the same work. If you retired 40 years later, in 2003, your wage had crept up to 80% of a man’s.
Today, the figure is about 77%.
One bright spot: Today women are slightly better positioned to challenge pay discrimination, thanks to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama. This law expanded the statute of limitations on fair pay lawsuits, making it harder for employers to escape liability for discriminatory practices that may have been in place for a long time.
When President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, he noted that one in every three workers in the U.S. was a woman. Today women make up half of the American workforce.
There is grim math behind that statistic. Think of it this way. In Kennedy’s day, only a third of the workforce (i.e., the women) suffered substandard pay based on gender. Todayhalf of the workforce (i.e., the women) suffers from this sort of discrimination. From this perspective, it appears we’ve been walking backwards since President Kennedy proclaimed that “first step” 49 years ago.
The effects of discrimination aren’t just felt today. They accumulate. Because of the gender pay gap, women with the same education doing the same job as men earn far less over their working lifetimes. Discriminatory pay cheats an average working woman out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Many men are happy to see their wives gain work outside the house. Other men are not so happy about it, but may regard it is an economic necessity for the family. In either case, such men share the pain of wage discrimination because their wives aren’t bringing as much money into the household as they could be – because on average they are getting only 77% of what they should be.
In 2009, The House of Representatives approved the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have updated the Equal Pay Act, closed many of its loopholes, and strengthened incentives to prevent pay discrimination going forward. The US Senate blocked the bill from moving forward in November 2010.
The bill was reintroduced in both houses of Congress in April 2011, but there is no prospect of it moving forward until a new Congress is seated in 2013.
Maybe then there can be a meaningful second step on the long road to pay equality for women.