Today, women are more likely than ever to be their family's breadwinners, in management positions, and hold advanced degrees. Yet some critics are re-litigating decades-old policy debates, which secured basic rights for women's autonomy, including pay equity.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963, which helped to secure workplace protections for wage discrimination, passed almost 50 years ago. Despite new debates to the contrary, there is no doubt that updates to improve our fair pay laws are needed. Half a century later, women, on average, earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men—just 17 cents more than when President Kennedy signed the law. For women of color, the progress has been even slower.
The Paycheck Fairness Act would enable President Kennedy's vision to be fully realized. Among other things, the bill would amend the Equal Pay Act to require employers to demonstrate that disparities in pay between men and women working the same job result from factors other than sex. It would also prohibit retaliation against employees who inquire about their employers' wage practices or disclose their own pay and would strengthen penalties for equal pay violations.
In the 111th Congress, the bill passed overwhelmingly, and on a bipartisan basis, in the House of Representatives. In spite of support from a majority of senators, it fell just two votes short of moving forward in the Senate. If Congress cannot pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year, women will once again be left waiting.
Fortunately, the Obama administration can help right now, by signing an executive order that would protect people who work for federal contractors against retaliation for disclosing or inquiring about their wages. Punitive pay secrecy policies—which the Paycheck Fairness Act would address—are a serious problem. If you don't know you are being paid less, there is nothing you can do about it.
According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, nearly half of American workers are forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with colleagues—in other words, you can be fired for asking about your own wages. By issuing an executive order, President Obama could ensure that never happens to the 26 million workers who are employed by federal contractors—that's over 20 percent of the U.S. workforce.
The Paycheck Fairness Act is still sorely needed, especially during these difficult economic times. As we continue to press for the bill's passage, we must seize every opportunity along the way to advance equal pay for women.
About Deborah J. Vagins Senior Legislative Counsel for the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office
Diana Furchtgott-Roth Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
Penny Nance President and CEO of Concerned Women for America
Debbie Wasserman Schultz Chair of the Democratic National Committee