It's the 50th Anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. How Are We Doing?


“Over the course of her career, a working woman with a college degree will earn, on average, hundreds of thousands of dollars less than a man who does the same work,” said President Obama Monday morning. “That’s wrong.” Well, yeah. But what ya gonna do about it?

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which sounds nice. A nice even, round number. But some other, less even and round numbers come with it: a department of labor study from 2010 found that in 1979, women who worked full time made 62 percent of what men did, while in 2010, they made 81 percent, a number that remains roughly intact. Other numbers you’ve heard before: in the United States, women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, a number that is even lower for Black and Hispanic women, at a respective but not respectable 64 and 54 cents. This is despite laws pushed forward by the Obama administration like the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, which abolished time limits put in place on when a woman had to file a claim against her employer for underpayment.

The most recent jobs reports indicate that though women are still being paid less than men, in the struggling slow climb out of the recession, women may be getting jobs at a faster rate than men. USA Today reports that:

“This year, men have gained 475,000 jobs and women a nearly identical 471,000. That’s impressive because women make up only 47% of all employed Americans. Since December, their unemployment rate — which is calculated from a different survey than the job totals — has tumbled from 7.8%. The 7.9% male rate hasn’t budged.”

Please note, however, that these jobs are low-wage ones:

“Nearly half of the job growth for women this year has been in low-wage positions, vs. 23% of jobs gained by men…”

Recent attempts to combat equal pay have had difficulty getting off the ground. Last week, GOP senators blocked the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was first introduced in 2005 by then-Senator Hillary Clinton. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro has introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act 16 times. The Act’s most recent iteration was co-sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. It aims to close loopholes that would allow companies to claim they chose not to pay an employee a certain wage because of “a differential based on any other factor other than sex”, as defined by the original Equal Pay Act. It also includes crackdowns on employers who would punish their employees for sharing salary information with one another. Additionally, Senator Tom Harkin attempted similar reforms with his Fair Pay Act, introduced earlier this year.

It’s not just male Republicans who are quietly stifling this legislation. Last week, Republican congresswoman Marsha Blackburn said she opposed the Paycheck Fairness Act:

“I think that more important than that is making certain that women are recognized by those companies. You know, I’ve always said that I didn’t want to be given a job because I was a female, I wanted it because I was the most well-qualified person for the job. And making certain that companies are going to move forward in that vein, that is what women want. They don’t want the decisions made in Washington. They want to be able to have the power and the control and the ability to make those decisions for themselves.”

The organization Equal Rights Advocates has started a letter writing campaign asking individuals to write to their Governors “asking each to commit to work to close the wage gap in his or her state.” Ultimately, the problem here is twofold: One, it requires that women actually take legal action against the companies that have wronged them. Two, it hopes that companies will be scared enough by the idea of being sued that their preventative measure will boil down to just paying women more. Both of these factors also shift depending on the state of America’s economy. (During the brunt of the recession, equal pay act filings were down, likely because of the economic climate.) It’s hard to see how slightly tweaked legislation could knock down the 23 cent difference between men and women, though that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be attempted.

“For anyone who says 77 cents on the dollar sounds pretty close to equal, I say, your math is bad,” Obama said this morning. “You wouldn’t like it if your vote only counted in three out of four elections.” The President’s language here is interesting, given that he’s essentially arguing that having the right to vote – which was something women didn’t have at one point – is the equivalent to not getting paid what you should. Only this time, as Obama notes, please remember that, “This is the 21st century. It’s time to close that gap.”

Image via Ron Edmonds/AP

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