Equal Pay Day, Tuesday, April 8, marks how many more days a woman must work to earn the equivalent of what her male counterpart earned the previous year.
Gender-based pay discrimination has been outlawed since 1963, but in 2012 women working full time in the United States earned just 77 percent of what men did. In Maine, the gap is slightly smaller, with women earning 83 percent of what our male counterparts make, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The gap is wider for women with a lower level of education.
Those lost wages not only affect individual women but also their families and our society as a whole. Most families rely on the income provided by women to make ends meet, and less money earned means less returned to the economy in the form of purchases or the payment of housing costs.
Lost wages are an even more serious matter for the 54,000 households in Maine headed by a single woman, about a third of whom are living below the poverty line. The wage gap contributes to the fact that nearly one in five Maine children is living in poverty.
Because what a woman earns over her lifetime determines her economic security in retirement, the wage gap contributes to Maine’s high poverty level among people over 65, the majority of them women.
Jobs traditionally held by women don’t pay as well as jobs traditionally held by men, but choice of career does not fully explain the difference in earnings. The gap persists even in higher-paying fields such as financial management, computer programming and the law. Strangely, the gap widens at the master’s degree level before shrinking again for those with a professional or doctoral degree.
The American Association of University Women found that the pay gap begins to emerge just one year after college graduation and becomes more pronounced after age 35. From age 16 to 34, women earn about 90 percent of what men earn; after that age, the pay gap widens.
That’s no coincidence. Women in their mid-thirties may be caring for young children or returning to work as their children enter school. Not only do women lose earning capacity as a result of taking time off, but research shows employers are less likely to hire mothers and, when they do, they are likely to offer them lower pay than childless women. Conversely, fathers are offered higher pay.
The United States is far out of step with other countries regarding work and family policies. Long after women have become an established part of the American workforce, we still don’t have policies and social systems that make it possible to meet our responsibilities both at work and at home. Instead, each family is left to figure it out on its own, and women tend to pay the price for pregnancy, childbirth and caregiving.
One of the most obvious issues that keeps women out of the workforce and affects their earnings is lack of quality, affordable child care. But there are many other contributing factors. Consider this: The only countries where there is no guarantee of paid leave for parents of newborns are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the United States of America. An estimated 40 million workers in the U.S. can’t earn paid sick days. Eighty percent of low-wage workers who need time off to get better or care for a sick child risk losing a day’s pay or even their job. That’s outrageous.
Fortunately, the tide is beginning to shift on policies that make a meaningful difference in women’s lives. Connecticut, Delaware, West Virginia and the District of Columbia have raised their minimum wage this year— great news for women, who are the vast majority of minimum-wage workers. Cities across the country, most recently New York, are adopting local ordinances requiring employers to allow workers to earn paid sick time. Congress is again considering solutions such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act and the State Paid Leave Fund.
Poll after poll shows that strong majorities support policies that help women get ahead: affordable child care, ending pay discrimination, raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing paid sick time and creating a system of paid family leave.
By strong margins, Americans of every stripe support policies that benefit women, our families and our society. It’s time to act on them.
Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, is the House chairwoman of the Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development. Eliza Townsend is the executive director of the Maine Women’s Policy Center and Maine Women’s Lobby.