Women’s Equality Day, Aug. 26, is both a celebration of women’s progress and a reminder that equality remains a goal, not a reality.
On this day in 1920, women gained the right to vote under the 19th Amendment. Today, over 90 years later, the struggle to advance women’s rights is concentrated on the economic front — with an end to discrimination against women in the labor force a critical, and hotly-debated, objective.
Two proposals now stalled in Congress would improve women’s odds of getting a fair shake at the workplace. They face an uphill battle, but it’s one worth fighting.
Many companies pay their male employees more than even better-qualified women in the same job. The best-known victim of pay discrimination today may be Lilly Ledbetter.
Ledbetter discovered when she was nearing retirement that her male colleagues were earning much more than she was. A jury found her employer, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Gadsden, Ala., guilty of pay discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court threw out the case, ruling that she should have filed her suit within 180 days of the date that Goodyear first paid her less than her peers. The narrow majority rejected the argument that each subsequent discriminatory paycheck was a new violation of the law.
On Jan. 29, 2009, President Barack Obama affixed his signature to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, his first official bill as president. The legislation expanded workers’ rights to sue in this kind of case, and relaxed the statute of limitations, restarting the six-month clock every time the worker receives a paycheck.
Ledbetter’s case is far from unique.
Consider the lawsuit against Wal-Mart, the one that the Supreme Court ruled could not proceed as a class action suit. The firm’s records, cited by the plaintiffs, showed that although more than two-thirds of the firm’s hourly employees were female, only 15 percent of store managers were women. “Women were paid less than men of equal seniority in every major job category, even though women on average had higher performance ratings and lower turnover rates than men,” states the Public Justice Center.
The Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act would close many of the loopholes and lax penalties that have made the Equal Pay Act of 1963 ineffective in ensuring pay equity in such cases. Studies show that bias against women begins at hiring and persists at promotion time. According to the American Association of University Women, one year after graduating from college, women earn only 80 percent as much as their male counterparts in the same field, and after 10 years of experience, women earn only 69 percent as much. In other words, the pay elevators for women start lower, are slower and don’t go as high as those for men. And the wage gaps are worse for black and Hispanic women.
A woman working full-time in 2009 earned at the median only 77 percent of what a man earned. Over the course of her lifetime, this translates into $400,000 of lost earnings. At the bottom of the wage scale, poor adults are largely women, and the poverty rate of 15 percent among working age women is 30 percent higher than that for men. The top of the income scale is dominated by men: approximately 80 percent of persons earning $100,000 or more per year are men.
The Fair Pay Act of 2011 would require employers to make public the job-related data that is basic to determining whether or not there has been discrimination. At present, women who believe they have been discriminated against cannot get the data on jobs and pay scales they need without filing a lawsuit. At some firms, they cannot even ask co-workers about their pay.
The other bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, clarifies that wage differences must be based on job characteristics, not on gender. And, if wage discrimination is proven in court, individuals would be able to receive full compensatory and punitive damages, as is already true in cases of discrimination based on race. It would prohibit retaliation by firms against employees who raise wage parity issues.
Eliminating the wage gap is particularly important in families where the woman is the only job-holder. And, among families with children under 18 years of age, 34 percent of working mothers are the sole earners in their family. Progress towards pay equity, then, is vital to the future of American families, and it depends on the passage of proposals like the Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Hill is an activist who holds a Ph.D. in economics.