05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You've Come a Long Way, Baby?

To commemorate Women's History Month, the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog asked me to reflect on past accomplishments and explore today's key challenges as part of its ongoing 'Feminomics' series. Here's my take on inequality and economic recovery.

In the late '60s, the Virginia Slim cigarette ads famously exploited the revival of the '20s women movement by creating a false sense of rebellion and independence. We burned our bras but deceived ourselves in thinking that the strike of a match could light a path to true equality with men -- not merely in the freedom to smoke, but in the workplace where inequality sent the hopes of millions of women up in flames. As Women's History Month comes to a close, it is helpful to reflect on how far along the road to financial and economic equality with men we have traveled.

According to the March 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, "women represent just 3 % of corporate executives at top companies worldwide...and reports of progress in advancement, compensation, and career satisfaction are at best overstated, at worst just plain wrong." To quote singer David Byrne, that's the "same as it ever was." The Equal Pay Act of 1963, which made it illegal to pay men and women different wages for equal work, came up again during the 2008 Presidential campaign because corporations and businesses still failed to implement it fully.

Economist Evelyn Murphy, president and founder of The WAGE Project, estimates that "the wage gap costs the average full-time U.S. woman worker between $700,000 and 2 million dollars over the course of her work life." For women of color, the situation is even bleaker: "African American women earn only 72 cents, and Latinas 60 cents, for every dollar that men earn," reports Murphy. "Asian American and Pacific Islander American women earn less too. Their pay inequality is less severe than for women as a whole, but they still earned only 88 cents for every dollar that men earned in 2000."

In January of 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, stating that it was "fitting that the very first bill I signed is upholding one of this nation's founding principles: That we are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness." This benevolent act reversed a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling to uphold a time limitation, 180 days, for employees to file pay-discrimination lawsuits and is expected to make it easier for workers to sue for decades-long discrimination.

Ledbetter filed a 1998 suit against a Goodyear Tire Rubber Co. plant in Gadsen, Alabama, after learning that men working in the same position were making more money. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote that Ledbetter had waited too long to sue, since she brought the suit near the end of her 19-year career with the company. Obama's signing of the bill helps to restore a measure of hope that pay equity for women is more than a distant dream, and that the sentiment behind a famous cigarette ad is closer to being realized.

Although the Virginia Slim ads still exist, it's now illegal to smoke in most public places. But if women's wish to light up has now been mostly relegated to the private sphere, the suffering of women who earn lower wages than their male counterparts must remain a highly visible public matter. These women are forced to stretch their shortened dollars to pay for day care, cosmetics, and wardrobe. And the only manner in which they manage to rank higher than men is in a string of negatives: women usually pay higher dry cleaning bills, pay higher interest rates on mortgages, and experience higher monthly upkeep than men.

If the Clinton Administration's mantra was "it's the economy stupid" -- one that addressed the tough economic times of nearly twenty years ago and remains relevant for our current financial fiasco -- that mantra is even truer today because women can help swing the economy upward because of our dependable consumerism. That means that men better get smarter about how they treat women: the more money women have in their coffers, the more we spend in the marketplace and also invest in our family's financial future.

And in what might be termed a Manolo Blahnik economy (where women spend sizable sums of their disposable income on consumer goods, especially shoes) it might not be a bad idea for men to get with the program of economic parity and financial equity -- or get trampled underneath our well-heeled resistance. And let's be direct: Men often want women on top, but only in the bedroom and not the corporate boardroom. It's high time we reversed the site of our valued position and claimed greater authority in all aspects of our financial and economic existence.

If a nation is judged by how it treats its women, we must switch from paternalism to parity, from chivalry to equity. If women are to truly advance in the workplace, we ought to place warning labels, not only on cigarette packages, but on employment packages too, and they should read: unequal pay can be hazardous to our nation's economic health.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.