by Liz O’Donnell (Boston)
Today is Equal Pay Day. The day, always a Tuesday in April, represents how much longer a woman must work, on average, to earn as much as a man earned the previous year. And even though President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January, the work is not done. The Ledbetter Act reversed a Supreme Court ruling from 2007 so that women can file discrimination claims 180 days from their last discriminatory paycheck, not 180 days from their employer’s initial decision to pay them less. But women still earn, on average, only .78 cents for every dollar a man earns.
As we have previoiusly reported, there is more legislation pending designed to help fight the wage gap. The Paycheck Fairness Act is pending in the Senate. This legislation will, among other things, deter wage discrimination by prohibiting retaliation against workers who inquire about employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages.
But can legislation really help close the wage gap? After all, The Equal Pay Act of 1963 made wage discrimination on the basis of sex illegal 46 years ago. And yet pay discrimination still occurs at alarming rates.
Women are often told that fighting gender discrimination of any kind in the workplace is potentially career-ending, risky business. Says one banking executive who would discuss the issue only under anonymity, “Men are still at the top in large numbers and they control the pay. There is no ability to really validate where you stand vs. a male peer. In the end, each one of us has to cut our own deal and manage that accordingly, or to the best of our abilities. The argument is futile when you take it down to your own personal situation because compensation becomes subjective. In the end, we need to cut our own best dealt that we are comfortable with, seek recognition and compensation on our own merits and accomplishments and not by comparisons to others. Easier said than done.”
So what, if anything, can be done?
Gloria Feldt, women’s activist and author, says women need to apply movement-building principles to the wage gap. “Women tend to isolate, particularly in the corporate workplace,” says Feldt. “They often feel the need to shut up and solve problems themselves. But nothing changes in the world until people get together to change it. ”
Feldt says women should discuss issues among themselves and jointly move toward a solution. Legislation, she says, elevates the conversation. “Data is powerful, says Feldt. “It’s not personal. People only get into trouble when they make it personal.”
And the wage gap is far from a personal issue. It is an economic issue that affects American families and the national economy “The Paycheck Fairness Act should be looked at as part of the stimulus package,” says Feldt.
While a twenty-two cent differential may not seem critical on an individual basis, it adds up. According to The Wage Project, a female high school graduate makes $700,000 less than a male counterpart over the course of her lifetime, a college graduate makes $1.2 million less than a man with a diploma, and a woman with a degree from a professional school loses $2 million to the wage gap. When women are offered lowered starting salaries, their performance-based and cost of living increases are calculated on the lower amount as are their bonuses and their savings and retirement plans.
These numbers become more disturbing when we look at what’s happening on a national level.
Women are projected to surpass men on the national payroll this year. If these women are losing an average of $1.4 million dollars in their lifetime, that means $1.4 million less to support families, buy products and support the economy.
“This is an incredible moment to escalate closing the gender pay gap,” says Feldt. “Policy, if nothing else, it’s a teacher,” she says, “and then I think it’s really up to the women. We are at a moment where we can have it, if we take responsibility to take it.”
The Paycheck Fairness Act will help fight pay discrimination by:
- facilitating class action equal pay act claims through an opt-out, not an opt-in, policy for class members
- helping prevailing plaintiffs recover compensatory and punitive damages
- improving the collection of pay information by the EEOC.
Here are some ways individuals can take action:
- Call your Senators and tell them to support the Paycheck Fairness Act
- Wear red on Equal Pay Day to illustrate the fact women are “in the red”
- Know your facts and use them on your behalf
- Join with other women to close the wage gap
- Sign the Fair Pay campaign pledge