The Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963, signed into law by President Kennedy, made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to men and women who perform substantially equal work. And yet. Today, white women who work full-time, year-round make only 77 cents for every dollar that a man doing the same work makes; for women of color, this gap is even larger. The reasons for this gap are manifold—devaluing work that is traditionally “female,” the impact of caregiving responsibilities, a difference in how companies view and treat working mothers and working fathers—but they all boil down to one thing: women aren’t as valued in the workforce as men are. That’s because we had to fight our way into the workforce, we were given less compensation from the get-go, and there are loopholes in our current laws, including the EPA, that make fighting discrimination difficult. It’s time we left this piece of our history in the dust.
On January 29, 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. Ms. Ledbetter, the law’s namesake, worked for Goodyear Tire & Rubber for 19 years before discovering that she’d been paid 40 percent less than her male coworkers during that time. When she tried to fight that discrimination, the Supreme Court ruled that she didn’t sue her employer within the necessary time period: 180 days from the time Goodyear made the decision (Ms. Ledbetter didn’t find out about the unequal pay within that time period, so she could not have sued). The act that President Obama signed closed that loophole by amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so that unfair pay complaints can be filed within 180 days of a discriminatory paycheck—and that 180 days resets after each paycheck is issued.
While this is a wonderful piece of legislation, we need to do more to close the wage gap. There are two pieces of legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act (EEORA), that would help us do just that.
The Paycheck Fairness Act
The Paycheck Fairness Act, which has been introduced in both the House and the Senate, would amend the EPA in important ways, including:
- Improving compensation for gender-based discrimination
- Facilitating class action claims, thereby allowing large groups of women who have earned lower wages to be automatically compensated
- Prohibiting employer retaliation, enhancing a woman’s ability to learn about discrimination
- Closing loopholes that allows employers to get around discrimination, including one that allows an employer to argue that discrimination is based on a “factor other than sex” (in some cases, employers have argued that superior male negotiation skills are such a factor)
- Improving the collection of gender-based pay data
The more you dig into the details, the clearer it becomes: we can have a law that says “equal pay for equal work,” but employers will try to get around it if they can, because it’s cheaper for them to do so. And our current laws provide them plenty of cozy loopholes for the money that their female employees earn. Employers aren’t going to close those loopholes unless we tell them to.
So far, that hasn’t happened.
In June of 2012, the Act fell eight votes short of the 60 it needed to pass the Senate. Unsurprisingly, the vote fell along party lines, with no Republicans supporting the Act. Senator Susan Collins of Maine said, “[In some cases, the pay gap] may be due to personal decisions that women make to leave the workforce to raise children for a number of years and then return to the workforce, for example. I don’t think you can assume discrimination.”
This comment, like the loophole that allows employers to claim a wage gap is based on “male negotiating power,” is mired in the sexism that produces a wage gap in the first place.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act
In June of 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that a group of female Wal-Mart employees could not come together to bring a class action gender discrimination suit against the retail giant, despite evidence showing lower wages for female Wal-Mart employees across the country. This decision has sweeping implications, making it much more difficult for groups of ordinary Americans to stand up for their rights against huge corporations.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the Wal-Mart decision makes fighting gender discrimination difficult because, among other things, it allows companies to hide behind written nondiscrimination policies, despite evidence of pervasive discrimination in practice. In other words, as long as Wal-Mart says it doesn’t discriminate against women, it can discriminate against women all the live-long day.
The EEORA will remedy this situation by providing a clear avenue for workers to come together to fight employer discrimination. I love it that the name of this act includes the word “restoration”—it clearly states that rights were removed, and need to be put back where they belong.
We Gotta Move, Y’all
The push for women’s equality in the 1960s helped to produce an unprecedented wave of civil rights legislation that moved women into the workforce and paved the way for my generation to believe that we had inherited an equal playing field. But the legislation that’s on the table today says it plain as day: the playing field is far from level. In fact, we are in danger of allowing the gains that our mothers fought so hard to make slip away.
That means it’s time to wake up. And move.
The Paycheck Fairness Act will return to Congress, and the EEORA has been introduced as a bill in both the Senate and the House. It’s time to make some noise. So much noise that history is gonna be listening to the echoes of our voices for years to come.
There was a lot of talk coming out of the debates last night about women’s rights, equality, and pay. Let’s use that talk to get some momentum going. The time, my friends, is now: