Today, a mere five days after we all rushed to the post office to file our tax returns, U.S. women have finally reached the earnings mark that their male counterparts achieved by December 31st of last year. Dubbed "Equal Pay Day," April 20th reminds us that the 60+ million working women in this country are suffering economically because equal pay is still not a reality.
The lone female among the 30 highest paid CEOs in the country, Susan Ivey of Reynolds American, is way down at number 27. But the successes for a relative few women at the top pale in comparison to the outrageous pay inequity that exists for their sisters in the everyday workforce. The National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) reminds us that even though the the Equal Pay Act was passed over forty years ago, women working full time, year round, still make only 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes. It's even worse if your skin happens to be black or brown. African-American women get 68 cents and Hispanics only 58 cents. Even the best-case 23 cent gap adds up over a worklife to a very unequal scorecard. Totaling more than half a million dollars for the average woman's career, it can mean the difference between owning a home or renting, sending your kids to college vs. sending them to flip burgers, and a decent retirement vs. penury in old age.
Naysayers claim there really is no pay gap -- the shortfall is due to "choices" women make. Females just naturally like the jobs with lower pay or less risk. Tell that to the women cleaning toilets at the airport or caring for HIV patients in hospitals every day. And those who refuse to believe there's a pay gap ignore reality: in every field, from engineering to law and medicine to teaching or clerking at Wal-Mart, the women make less for doing exactly the same work as the men. Another argument is that motherhood -- not sex discrimination -- is the real culprit. If that's so, we need to ask why the workplace punishes women for being mothers, but fatherhood carries no economic risk at all.
Women have made some gains in corporate board memberships -- they're now an underwhelming 14%, up from 9.5% in 1995. And no doubt because women get tired of fighting the corporate "men and good ol' boys first" mentality, new business startups by women are at an all-time high. Even so, just this week, the New York Times reported that even when women choose to go it on their own, they're still treated like second-class citizens -- particularly in the burgeoning high tech areas in places like the Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas.
Shortchanging women means shortchanging men and children as well. In the present climate of encouraging economic self-sufficiency and focusing on family well-being, righting the wrongs of unequal pay seems like a no-brainer.
The Fair Pay Act, a bill to level the paying field, has been a perennial on Capitol Hill since 1996. The FPA would outlaw discrimination in pay for jobs that are equal in skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions, even if the actual work is dissimilar. Perhaps more importantly, the bill would require employers to release summary statistics on what they pay women and men, so workers would know where they stood in the workforce.
But why wait for an act of Congress? One Governor, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, is taking action at the state level. He has issued an Executive Order requiring any business that wants a state contract to file a gender pay equity report with the state, beginning in July. After all, those contracts are funded by tax dollars from women and men alike. Corporations that claim to be in favor fairness in the workplace should be glad to take an honest look at their pay practices and correct disparities now. Those that have nothing to hide should be proud for the world to know that they pay all workers according to merit, not gender.
Right now, women who suspect pay discrimination must file a lawsuit and go into a drawn-out legal discovery process to find out whether they make less than the guy beside them. With pay statistics readily available, this expensive process could be avoided. Employers holler constantly about "frivolous lawsuits," and complain about over-regulation. Both would surely stop if employees (including white men) could see up front that they were being treated fairly.
Throughout April, state and local committees around the country are organizing events to call attention to the lighter pay envelopes of women. And the National Council of Women's Organizations has launched a website (sexdiscrimination.org) to teach women their rights and put them in touch with competent lawyers.
Maybe while they're waiting for justice, women should ask for a 23 percent credit on their income tax returns.
Equal Pay Day? Not yet.
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