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Martha Burk Headshot

Obama Should Stop Talking and Start Acting on Equal Pay

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Maria Shriver's The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink was released this week to much media fanfare. Highlighting the gender pay gap, it estimates that the U.S. economy would have produced income of $447.6 billion more if women received equal pay. Women now make 77 cents to a man's dollar for year-round, full-time work. Additional analysis prepared for the report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research shows that with equal pay, the poverty rate for women would be cut in half, falling to 3.9 percent from 8.1 percent among working women. The very high poverty rate for working single mothers would fall from 28.7 percent to 15.0 percent.

To underscore the importance of the report, President Obama had a sit-down with Shriver before the news cameras, and said Congress should pass the Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA). That's a bill that would outlaw the common practice of prohibiting employees from discussing their pay with others, and also allow the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to collect some pay data by race and gender, though it would not be available to the public nor to employees.

But it's half a loaf at best.

The PFA has been around since the mid-1990s, when it was crafted as a leadership bill during Tom Daschle's stint as Senate minority leader. It was Daschle's effort to neutralize a stronger bill already in the hopper while still making it look like the leadership was addressing the problem. The stronger bill, the Fair Pay Act from Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), had been endorsed by the major women's groups and the unions as well. It had what's known as "comparable worth," a prohibition against discrimination in pay between jobs that are comparable in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions, whether or not the job titles are the same (think shipping foreman and clerical supervisor). Strong stuff, but it wouldn't have helped women get equal pay nearly as much as a second provision in the bill -- public disclosure of pay scales by gender. Wow -- would corporations hate that one.

Not knowing how you're paid relative to co-workers is the single biggest barrier for women in getting equal pay. In many companies, you can be fired for talking pay with others. While the PFA would outlaw that, it would not require public disclosure of pay statistics by gender and job category. This working-in-the-dark situation is what gave rise to Ledbetter v. Goodyear, the infamous case in which the Roberts Court ruled that Lilly Ledbetter couldn't collect damages for unequal pay because she hadn't complained within 180 days of her first short paycheck, even though she didn't learn about her discriminatory pay until she had been on the job for 15 years.

The Fair Pay Act was then -- and is now -- the bill we need, because it would shine the light on unequal pay once and for all. But realistically, no pay equity bill is going to pass 2012-06-12-yourvoicesmallest2.JPGa lukewarm Senate and woman-hostile House. It's already been two decades, and the business lobby is too strong for mere women's groups to overcome.

Instead of just giving lip service to a bill, President Obama could do something on his own. He could issue an Executive Order mandating that government contractors publish pay data by gender. That way women could see if they're being shorted. Then-Governor Bill Richardson issued such an order in New Mexico in 2009. Businesses groused a little, but they complied. Last November the city of Albuquerque passed the first city-level ordinance in the nation mandating pay disclosure by contractors. Taxpayers have a right to know their dollars are supporting businesses that play fair.

While it is true that an Obama Executive Order would only apply to firms contracting with the federal government, it would still be a giant step forward. It could have the same long-term impact for women that LBJ's Affirmative Action order had back in 1965.

All it takes is political will.