By Jocelyn Samuels, AlterNet
Posted on April 28, 2009, Printed on April 28, 2009
This time last year, women in the United States were earning 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and we were urging Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
What a difference a year makes. President Barack Obama has signed the Ledbetter bill into law, and we’re light years ahead of where we were in 1963, when the Equal Pay Act was passed.
Back then, women earned a mere 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. Three months ago, as I stood in the White House with Ledbetter as Obama signed the law that bears her name, part of the thrill we experienced undoubtedly came from the knowledge of how far we’ve come over the past decades.
But the wage gap persists: Women still make only 78 cents for each dollar paid to men. And today, April 28, 2009, marks Equal Pay Day. That means that it is only as of this point that the average woman’s wages have finally caught up with what the average man earned in 2008. And that’s decidedly un-thrilling.
These statistics look at the wages paid to the average woman in comparison to those paid to the average man, but the situation is even more disturbing when you consider the impact of race and gender combined. White women earn 81 cents for every dollar paid to men. That’s bad enough. But African American women earn only 69 cents, and Hispanic women only 59 cents, for every dollar paid to men. Our state-by-state comparison found that in some states, the average pay for all women is as low as 63 cents on the dollar.
Particularly in this period of economic distress this is plainly unacceptable. Congress must act to make sure that women can truly realize the decades-old promise of equal pay for equal work.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a crucial step forward in this battle. The law reinstates the right of workers to go to court to hold their employers accountable for pay discrimination — a right that the Supreme Court stole from us in its 2007 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. But now it’s time for step two. To close the wage gap and to move closer to making equal pay for equal work a reality, we need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.
The Paycheck Fairness Act would give new teeth to equal-pay laws and provide incentives for businesses to follow the law. It would deter wage discrimination by strengthening penalties for equal-pay violations, closing loopholes that courts have opened in the four decades that the Equal Pay Act has been the law, and prohibiting retaliation against workers who ask about employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages. In short, the bill gives women critical ammunition to fight pay discrimination in the 21st century.
There’s clearly a lot of work ahead of us. In addition to passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, we must pass the Fair Pay Act, which recognizes that far too many occupations in the United States remain dominated by one gender — with those dominated by men typically providing better wages and benefits. Moreover, we must address the glass ceiling — women comprise less than 2.5 percent of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies. And we must take steps to support women-owned small businesses, which receive only about 3 percent of the billions of dollars in federal contracts that are awarded every year.
With the Ledbetter law in place, it might be tempting to sit back and say that our work is done — that the struggle for pay equity has come to a close. But the numbers don’t lie — we’re simply not finished. It’s likely to be a tough fight. Already we’re facing backlash from corporate interests that are resisting giving their employees the ability to effectively assert their rights under the federal anti-discrimination laws.
But we’ll keep at it. On this Equal Pay Day, let’s move toward a world where it doesn’t take until the end of April for women in this country to catch up with what men earned the year before. Here’s to hoping that someday, my daughters will be celebrating Equal Pay Day on Dec. 31 — or, indeed, that “Equal Pay Day” will be marked only in the history books.
Jocelyn Samuels is vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, where she focuses on barriers to the advancement of women and girls at school and in the workplace. Visit the National Women’s Law Center Web site to see who else is writing about workplace fairness for women on this Equal Pay Day.