This article was co-authored by Kate Michelman and Terry L. Fromson
The Equal Pay Act became law fifty years ago today. Unfortunately, we remain far from achieving the goal of the law. Nationwide, women are paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men, a 23 cent gap which adds up to over $10,000 per year. These pay disparities have real-life negative consequences for women and their families. Just last week, the Pew Research Center reported that women are the sole or primary source of income in 40 percent of American households with children under age 18.
The wage gap varies by state and city. Pennsylvania's gender wage gap mirrors the national average at 77 cents paid to women for every dollar paid to men, putting the Commonwealth in the bottom half of all states in terms of pay equity. Within Pennsylvania, the gap varies by municipality; in Pittsburgh women are paid 73 cents to the dollar paid to men, while women in Philadelphia are paid 76 cents to the dollar paid to a man.
Minority women suffer a greater disparity. Nationally, African American women are paid 70 cents to the dollar paid to men.
Hispanic women are paid only 60 cents for every dollar paid to men. The wage gap in Pennsylvania for African American women is 72 cents to the dollar paid to men. Hispanic women in Pennsylvania fare worse, as they are paid only 58 cents to the dollar paid to men.
Comparing the pay of Pennsylvania women to just white non-Hispanic men highlights the combined effect of race/ethnicity and sex on pay. In Pennsylvania, white non-Hispanic women are paid 75.2 cents, African American women are paid 68.1 cents, and Hispanic women are paid 55.5 cents relative to the dollar paid to white non-Hispanic men.
At the same time, women in Pennsylvania are more likely to be poor than men, and female-headed families are three times more likely to live in poverty. For these families, the gap between what employers pay them and what employers should pay them may make the difference between feeding their families healthy meals, keeping a roof over their heads, and having transportation to work. The wage gap increases economic insecurity for Pennsylvania families.
While the wage gap fluctuates based on occupation and education, women are paid less than men in almost every occupation despite almost identical qualifications. Women are paid less even though they are earning the largest portion of college diplomas. At the rate that this gap is changing, the wage gap will not be closed for over forty years, almost 100 years after the adoption of the Equal Pay Act.
The underlying cause of the wage gap is sex discrimination - plain and simple. Employers pay women less than men. Employers offer them fewer jobs and fewer promotions and pay them less for the same work. This ongoing sex discrimination is aggravated by a number of additional factors. Gender segregation persists in the workforce, with sex stereotypes driving women into low-wage, often part-time jobs, predominantly occupied by women. In these often minimum wage jobs, women are subjected to wage theft, when they are shorted hours, forced to work off the clock, not paid overtime, or not paid at all.
Overlaying this picture is the further diminishment of wages due to assumptions about pregnancy and caregiving responsibilities at the time of hire and the lost time from work and the work force due to family responsibilities disproportionately borne by women when employers fail to provide men and women with accommodations and flexibility to address their families' needs.
We need to bring America closer to the promise of the Equal Pay Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act, currently pending in Congress, seeks to eliminate gaps in the Equal Pay Act that make it difficult for women to get the information they need in order to know whether they are being subject to discrimination. Today, a majority of employees report that they are either prohibited or actively discouraged from discussing their pay. States are getting on board. Governor Cuomo has announced plans to advance a Women's Equality Act in New York that includes equal pay. Legislation has been introduced in some states to provide greater protection for equal pay than is currently provided under federal law. Pennsylvania should do the same.
In a perfect world, employers would pay women what they deserve without government intervention. Such action would be an appropriate salute to the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. Sadly, we have learned this is unlikely. As voters, women have shown themselves to be savvy, educated citizens who will vote for their interests. Politicians who refuse to make this noble idea a reality do not deserve our votes.
Kate Michelman is President Emeritus of NARAL Pro-Choice America and Co-Chair of WomenVote Pa, an initiative of the Women's Law Project.
Terry L. Fromson is managing attorney of the Women's Law Project where she specializes in impact litigation and systems policy advocacy related to educational equity, insurance discrimination, domestic and sexual violence.