Equal Pay for Equal Work

08/19/2011 05:39 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2011

Just a few months ago, the Supreme Court made a historical ruling impacting the future of pay discrimination in this country. The court, in a five to four decision, ruled in favor of retail giant Wal-Mart against a group of its female employees. Wal-Mart was facing a possible class action lawsuit on behalf of its female workers who were not promoted and were paid less than their male counterparts for similar work. Not only does the ruling make it more difficult for women, minorities and other discriminated groups to find justice in the courts, it weakens the legal case for equal pay for equal work in this country.

The fact remains that in 2011, women, as a whole, still earn less than men in the United States. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, women who work full-time earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn. For women of color, the numbers are worse. African American women only earn approximately 61 cents and Latinas only 52 cents for each dollar earned by a white man.

On a state-by-state basis, the numbers show an even more telling story. In Illinois, on average, a woman working full time is paid $37,841 per year, while a man working full-time is paid $49,336 per year. This creates a wage gap of $11,495 -- money that could be used to purchase food, housing and rent for these women and their families. Over a lifetime, this wage disparity costs the average woman and her family $700,000 to $2 million in lost wages, impacting Social Security benefits and pensions. As the CEO of an organization committed to providing economic opportunities for women, I find these numbers simply unacceptable.

Many critics believe pay differences between men and women are simply a matter of personal choices, like women choosing to take time off to raise children. Research proves otherwise. In 2007, The American Association of University Women (AAUW) addressed this argument in a study that analyzed earnings data for female and male college graduates one year and 10 years after college graduation. The organization found that just one year after graduation, women earned only 80 percent of what their male counterparts made. Ten years after graduation, women were earning even less -- 69 percent of what men earned.

When we think of how far we've come with women's rights -- ensuring women's right to vote, reproductive justice and equal protection under the law from harassment, it can be easy to feel complacent. It can be easy to look at the progress we've made and feel reassured that someday we will eventually reach the goal of full pay equality. However, what we often fail to calculate in this equation is the work that was done to get us to this point -- the marches, the calls, the meetings, the letters. And in my opinion, it's time to begin working again.

One of the key ways to change this disparity is to educate individuals about the issue of pay inequity. In an effort to create a dialogue surrounding this issue, organizations have created events including the national Equal Pay Day, which serves as a day to hold coordinated activities to raise awareness about how to address wage inequity. Last April, the YWCA joined fourteen other organizations and government agencies to sponsor an Equal Pay Day rally in Daley Plaza. And though the rally was a tremendous success, efforts like Equal Pay Day can be only the beginning in addressing this issue if we truly want to achieve pay equity in this country.

To develop a legal precedent, especially in light of the Supreme Court's ruling, we need to ensure passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act to provide future protection against pay inequities in the workplace. The Paycheck Fairness Act, currently being considered by Congress, expands the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The bill, which was reintroduced to the both the House and the Senate this April after failing to pass in the Senate in 2010, makes it easier for individuals who are victims of wage discrimination to address the issue. The Paycheck Fairness Act would do the following:

• Allow victims of gender wage discrimination to receive damages.
• Make it easier for individuals who are victims of wage discrimination to file class action lawsuits.
• Prevent punishment of employees who share salary information with co-workers.
• Tighten employer rules concerning defense of a gendered pay differential.

Many organizations are taking a lead on helping to organize our efforts. Women Employed, headquartered in Chicago, is a leading national advocate for women's economic advancement and is helping equal pay supporters petition Congress. And the National Committee on Pay Equity is working to increase individual awareness and reaching out to legislators to educate them about these issues. Working together, we will eventually reach a place where equal pay is synonymous with equal work in this country. My hope is that it happens much sooner rather than later.