The equation couldn't be easier. Women represent more than half of the electorate and nearly half the workforce. So you'd think that President Obama and Governor Romney, vying to win the women's vote, would focus on pay equity and its direct link to a healthy economy. But no, it took a woman to raise the question just three weeks before the presidential election.
A woman in the audience at this week's presidential debate asked the governor about his position on pay equity -- you know that universal value of fairness that demands equal pay for equal work. Rather than answering the question, Governor Romney told a story about "binders full of women," when selecting his gubernatorial cabinet. His story turned out to be a fabrication, but that's another tale.
The real truth is that women are sick and tired of being shortchanged at the workplace. The Census Bureau recently released wage data from 2011 that showed no change in the wage gap. Women still earn on average just 77 cents for every dollar men earn -- that's a difference of $11,084 yearly. That's the equivalent of 88 weeks of groceries or 13 months of rent. For women of color, the pay gap is even wider. African American women earned 69 cents and Latinas 60 cents for every dollar earned by white males, the highest earners.
Fair pay for women is particularly important in this tough economy. Lower earnings have an especially serious effect on the economic security of the over 6.3 million families headed by working single mothers. In six out of ten families, a mother is the primary or co-breadwinner, so the pay gap makes an enormous difference in a family's ability to make ends meet.
Tracy Jones knows this all too well. Tracy, a single mother, worked in a factory as the only woman in her department. Even though she had more seniority then all of the men and trained many of them, the men were still making an additional dollar an hour more than she was earning.
Critics of equal pay legislation allege that women earn less than men because of the choices they make or that some working moms leave work early to "make dinner" for their kids as alluded to by Governor Romney at the town hall-style debate. Others claim women delay careers to have children or enter professions that pay less than the male dominated fields in engineering and science.
Tell that to Leisa Patin, a seasoned electrical engineer who worked for a NASA contractor at Johnson Space Center in Houston. She eventually took a position with a new company that paid $30,000 a year more than her previous salary. After she left, she found out that her male colleague was earning $25,000 more a year than she was, even though he had 10 years less experience.
No, women don't choose to earn less. Women earn less because of a simple truth -- gender discrimination. But the gender wage gap is also affected by occupational segregation -- women who work primarily with other women in undervalued, underpaid occupations. Women make up an estimated 49 percent of the workforce, but 59 percent of the low-wage workforce. For example, women make up 97 percent of secretary and administrative assistant workers, 88 percent of home health care workers, 95 percent of child care workers, and 71 percent of restaurant servers.
And too many working women are penalized financially for family caregiving because they lack access to policies such as paid sick days and family leave. This is particularly troublesome for single low-wage earning women with children who earn less than women without children, single men, and men with children. On average, single women with children have the lowest annual income. Over 40 percent of single mothers live in poverty.
The wage gap has long-term effects on the economic security of women and families. Women lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, up to over a million, over their careers. That means less money to make ends meet and achieve economic security for families. A lifetime of lower wages also means that women have less to save for retirement and qualify for lower social security payments.
We need to know how candidates plan to level the playing field to ensure equal pay for equal work. Because women deserve to be paid fairly, and when they are, their families and the economy will win.