In 1984, I opened the envelope with my second annual pay raise of my first professional job and discovered an 18 percent raise. It turns out that 6 percent was my annual raise and 12 percent was a pay equity increase. Imagine my naivete to think that this correction was normal practice for most companies. Time has taught me that equal pay for equal work is far from the norm.
On April 12, thousands of women across the U.S. will join in a national day of action against unfair pay called Equal Pay Day. The date is symbolic of the point in this year that a woman must work to catch up to wages paid a man last year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine women are paid, on average, only 80 cents for every dollar men are paid. Because women earn less, we must work longer for the same pay.
It’s estimated that the wage gap costs the average American full-time working woman between $700,000 and $2 million over the course of her lifetime.
Since 1960, the real median earnings of women have fallen short by more than $500,000 compared with those of men. Minority women face a larger wage gap. Compared with white men, African-American women make 67 cents on the dollar; Hispanic women make about 58 cents.
The wage gap also has long-term effects on women’s economic security. Women are more likely than men to enter poverty in old age. A lifetime of lower wages means women have less income for retirement from Social Security and pension plans. Women’s life expectancy is approaching 86 years, which means they outlive men by an average of three years and have to stretch their retirement savings further. Yet, the median income of older women is almost half that of older men.
A partial explanation of the wage gap is occupational segregation. According to the American Association of University Women, women are still pigeonholed in “pink-collar” jobs that tend to depress their wages. AAUW’s Women at Work report found that women are concentrated in traditionally female-dominated professions, especially in the health and education industries.
President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, approving equal-pay legislation that he said would “send a clear message that making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody.” This legislation closed a gaping loophole in existing fair pay laws — but it’s not enough.
The next vital bill in encouraging pay equity, the Paycheck Fairness Act, was introduced in January 2009 by then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. Rosa DeLauro to strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Had it passed, the bill would have expanded damages under the Equal Pay Act and amended its broad fourth affirmative defense. In addition, the Paycheck Fairness Act called for a study of data collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and proposed voluntary guidelines to show employers how to evaluate jobs with the goal of eliminating unfair disparities.
The bill was passed by the House on Jan. 9, 2009, but fell short last year in the Senate. Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins joined their Republican colleagues and voted against cloture, tabling the Paycheck Fairness Act. This vote by the Senate jeopardizes the economic standing of Maine’s women and their families, and undermines the principles of equity and fairness.
That I once received a pay raise that set my income on a par with my male colleagues gives me hope for the future of paycheck fairness. However, without appropriate measures that expand workers’ rights in investigating and obtaining equal pay for equal work, this goal may be a long time coming for most women.
Bets Brown of South China is the public policy chairwoman for the American Association of University Women of Maine.