The Paycheck Fairness Act: Now an Economic Imperative

On this Equal Pay Day, the author, executive director of the national education equity organization AAUW, argues that the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession depends on fair pay for women.

Today, as we do every year in April, AAUW and our allies mark Equal Pay Day. This day represents how far into the next year the average woman must work to earn what the average man took home the previous calendar year. In other words, every year women start out more than 100 days behind.

In this economy, we don’t have 100 hours to spare, let alone 100 days. Even with a very recent uptick in job creation, the U.S. economy has shed more than 7 million jobs since December 2007. The recovery of the American middle class begins and ends with good-paying jobs, but that cannot happen if women continue to earn less than they deserve—77 cents on the dollar, on average, compared with men at last count, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. AAUW’s report Behind the Pay Gap controlled for factors known to affect earnings, such as education and training, parenthood, and hours worked, and found that college-educated women still earn less than men do—even when they have the same major and occupation as their male counterparts.

That’s why the Paycheck Fairness Act is needed now more than ever. There is no higher priority for the American public than the restoration of the economy, and working toward pay equity is a critical step in that direction. Policy makers need to ensure that women workers—all workers—don’t just survive the downturn but continue the march toward fair pay and workplace opportunity. Empowering women is one investment that always pays long-term dividends, not only for the women themselves but their families and the entire nation as well.

The Paycheck Fairness Act is a comprehensive bill that updates the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by taking meaningful steps to create stronger incentives for employers to follow the law, empower women to negotiate for equal pay, and strengthen federal outreach and enforcement efforts. Passing this legislation—approved by the House more than a year ago—is the next logical step following the 2009 enactment of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored the ability of working women to have their day in court to combat wage discrimination.

The fight to achieve pay equity is often couched in moral terms. That, of course, is how it should be—it is completely unethical for any nation, particularly one as advanced as the United States, to pay a woman less than a man simply because of her sex. As long as the pay gap is in place, civil rights will remain—in the words of the stalwart Senator Edward Kennedy—the unfinished business of America.

That said, AAUW believes it is equally important to discuss the economic imperative of this cause as well. For the past quarter of a century, American families have relied increasingly upon women’s wages to make ends meet. From 1980 to 2006, women’s income as a share of total family income rose from 26.7 percent to 35.6 percent. The Great Recession—during which the importance of a working woman’s wage has never been higher—has intensified this trend. For the first time in American history, women today represent half of the paid workforce, and two-thirds of women are either the primary or co-breadwinner for their families. In other words, pay equity is not just a moral issue; it is an economic imperative with enormous implications not just for women but also for working families, communities, and the nation’s recovery.

When the House passed the Paycheck Fairness Act, it was with an even greater bipartisan majority than the Ledbetter bill received. The Obama Administration has publicly announced its support for the bill as well. All that’s left is for the Senate to do its duty and send the bill to the president’s desk. More than one-third of the Senate is co-sponsoring the legislation, and a Senate committee held a successful hearing on the bill last month. AAUW has been leading the charge on this bill for more than a decade, and we’ve never been closer to seeing it become law. The stars have never been aligned this well—the time to pass this bill is now.

Every April, we’re reminded that women must work nearly 16 months to be on par with what men earn in 12 months. Economically and ethically, we can no longer allow this inequity to stand. AAUW will not rest until the Paycheck Fairness Act finally becomes law. When it does, we see a chance at a future where Equal Pay Day will represent a celebration rather than a shortcoming.

The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making women visible and powerful in the media.