Equal Pay: A Matter of Economic Survival

06/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today is "Equal Pay Day," the day that symbolizes how far into 2010 it takes for women to earn the same amount men made in 2009. Last year, men earned an average of $46,200 over the year, but women had to work all of 2009 and 4 months into this year to reach that mark.

Despite the fact that women now make up half the nation's workforce, the problem of unequal pay persists nearly 50 years after passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act. Most women are in the workforce today, and most families rely on the earnings of women to get by--especially those headed by unmarried women. Unequal pay is not just a matter of equal rights it is a matter of basic economic survival. In fact, families headed by a single woman are twice as likely to be in poverty as families headed by a single man.

In 2008, women made only 77 cents for every dollar a man earned. By marital status, the gap is even starker: unmarried women make 56 cents to the married man's dollar. Even among unmarried Americans, unmarried women make 88 cents to the unmarried man's dollar.

Unequal pay affects women throughout their lifetimes. As the Center for American Progress has described it, the "career wage gap," meaning the total that women are underpaid during their career, adds up to huge numbers: $434,000 on average, and many hundreds of thousands more for women with college degrees.

This means that not only do women have less income to pay for living expenses or raise a child during their working years--it also means women have less money saved up for retirement and their Social Security benefits are lower, putting women in poor financial shape even after their working years.

While the fact that men and women work at different kinds of jobs explains some of the wage gap, it certainly doesn't explain why women often earn less than men even when they work in similar jobs and have the same education credentials as their male colleagues. As Senator Chris Dodd said at a recent hearing on equal pay, "Women are being paid less than men simply because they are women."

An important bill in Congress aims to end pay discrimination based on gender. The Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen current legal protections against wage discrimination, which have proven to be insufficient. The bill would allow employees to discuss their earnings with each other, so that women might learn if they are being discriminated against; currently, workers are not protected from retaliation if they share wage information. In cases where discrimination is found, women could recover not just back wages but also damages, as in cases of race-based discrimination. The bill would also limit the bases allowed to justify differences in pay, among other provisions.

The Paycheck Fairness Act passed the House early in 2009. The Senate held a well-attended hearing on the bill last month and it is now time for the Senate to put this crucial bill to a vote so that all workers will earn what they deserve and families will be on equal footing.