06/05/2012 01:59 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

Eliminating the Pay Gap

Nearly fifty years after President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, prohibiting employers from discriminating on the basis of gender, women still earn significantly less than men for doing the same work.

Today, Congress has a chance to do something about it -- when the Senate is scheduled to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which strengthens the original Equal Pay law in several important ways.
While the pay gap has narrowed in recent decades, a report this past month from the Joint Economic Committee underscores just how far we still have to go to eliminate the gap. The report finds that women earn just 82 cents for every dollar earned by men; in Pennsylvania, it's 81 cents on the dollar.

This persistent pay gap is unacceptable and especially harmful to the families women support with their paychecks.

Closing the pay gap is a matter of basic fairness: women should be paid the same as men for doing the same job. But the existence of a wage gap also damages our economy, since women have fewer dollars in their paychecks to put back into their communities and the economy.

In recent years, families have become increasingly dependent on women's incomes. Nearly half of all mothers work full time and two in three working mothers are the sole breadwinners or co-breadwinners in their families. In Philadelphia County alone, there are almost 210,000 children who depend at least in part on mothers' earnings.

Mothers' earnings are especially important to lower-income families. While mothers' wages account for less than 40 percent of family income for the typical two-earner family in the United States, for families at the bottom of the income distribution, mothers' earnings account for nearly half of household income.

Skeptics of the pay gap claim the difference in pay between men and women is because male workers are more educated and more experienced. But even after adjusting for education and age and other factors, a pay gap remains.

The reality is that discrimination can be difficult to identify and harder to prove. Often, the discrimination is subtle and plays out over years in numerous hiring, compensation, promotion and other workplace decisions.

Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act is a simple step Congress can take right now to strengthen the original law addressing gender discrimination by:

• Prohibiting employers from punishing employees for sharing salary information with co-workers.

• Making discrimination costly to employers by making those who bring gender discrimination cases eligible for compensatory and punitive damages, as is the case with race and ethnicity discrimination cases.

• Developing new training programs for women and girls on how to negotiate compensation packages and recognizing employers who have eliminated pay disparities.

While the Paycheck Fairness Act focuses mostly on employers, we all have a role to play in combating discrimination. It's important to challenge gender stereotypes -- in our workplaces, in the media and in our communities.

The legislation isn't a panacea. But it will make it more difficult for employers to discriminate on the basis of gender and it will arm women with new negotiating tools.

As our economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, we need to do everything possible to sustain and support the recovery. Taking steps to close the pay gap is not only the right thing to do for women, it's the right thing to do for our economy.