On Tuesday of this week, seven days after the hard working women of this country mailed off their tax returns, we marked Equal Pay Day. Again. That's the day in April each year when women finally meet the earnings mark their male counterparts reached by December 31 of the previous year. Why are we nearly four months behind? The gender pay gap is still very much with us. This year women working full-time and year-round are making 77 cents to the man's dollar, up only one penny from last year. At that rate, it will be another 23 years before we catch up - a full career in anybody's book.
Nobody believes all of the pay gap is due to sex discrimination, though experts agree that a good part of it can't be accounted for any other way. It goes all the way back to the early 20th century, when women were seen as working for "pin money," and employers routinely and legally paid females less than men doing the same work. In 1963 equal pay for equal work became the law of the land, but even in the 21st century, many employers try to get away with shorting women.
That's what happened to Lilly Ledbetter, a manager at Goodyear. After many years of employment, Ledbetter learned she had been paid less all along than the 16 men at her management level, including those with less seniority. She sued and won, but last year the Roberts Supreme Court overturned her victory. In a truly bizarre ruling, the Court said Ledbetter had the right to sue only if she filed within 180 days of the time her discriminatory pay was initially set, even though it had been a tightly held secret in the company for over a decade before she found out about it. The ruling also overturned over 40 years of precedent - courts have consistently recognized that you can't sue for something you don't know about, and have always given women 180 days to bring action after they're clued in.
Women and men of good will in Congress were naturally outraged over this new standard, and sought to overturn it through a new law - the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The bill would reinstate the old rules, and clarify that each new short paycheck is a new act of discrimination. A vote on it was blocked this week by Republicans, meaning women will have to wait for another day to see justice.
The vote is particularly unfortunate when you break the numbers down. That 77 cent figure is only an average. Women of color fare much worse; African American women get 72%, Hispanic sisters make 59%, and Native American women come in last, bringing in only 58 cents to the man's dollar. That means a big part of the female population is dragging along near the bottom. Over a work life, pay gaps like these add up to more than $500,000. It means the difference between owning a home and renting, sending your kids to college versus sending them to flip burgers, and a decent retirement versus struggling in old age.
There is no question another vote will come up, maybe as soon as next week. After all, it's an election year, and nearly one in four female voters list "equal pay for equal work" or "workplace equality" as the most important problem facing American women. The Republicans ought to rethink what they're doing if they care about being re-elected. Women are now the permanent majority - in the population, in registration, ad in turnout. That means they can control any election, and pay equity is one place where the pocketbook matters more than party.
Martha Burk is author of "Your Money and Your Life: The High Stakes for Women Voters in '08 and Beyond," available at msmagazine.com