THE BLOG

Closing the Gender Gap

10/13/2010 03:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The United States is making progress when it comes to closing the gender gap, according to a new report from the World Economic Forum. However, the U.S. still trails 18 countries, and on the critical question of wage equality, we didn't make the top 50.

The Global Gender Gap Index ranks 134 countries on how they are doing at eliminating inequality between men and women in the areas of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. For the first time in the index's five-year history, the United States cracked the top 20, moving up 12 places to 19, driven by high levels of educational attainment for women.

Digging a little deeper into the numbers, the U.S. ranked a dismal 64th on wage equality for similar work, which is consistent with recent research in the United States showing that progress closing the pay gap has slowed for women and stalled completely for working moms.

A study that I requested from the Government Accountability Office, focusing on the representation and pay of women and men in management across 13 major industries, found that the pay gap for childless women managers narrowed two cents between 2000 and 2007, but management moms made no progress during this time.

At a time when women's jobs are increasingly important to their households' overall income, a growing body of research shows that women's paychecks take a big hit when they become moms. Indeed, Dr. Michelle J. Budig, a sociologist at UMass Amherst, concluded that the wage penalty for mothers costs the typical woman worker $1,100 per child, per year.

Even worse, the penalty is greatest among low-wage workers, with those at the bottom of the income ladder paying the steepest price.

Skeptics of the pay gap say the difference in pay between men and women, and fathers and mothers, results because male workers are more educated and more experienced. But when you adjust for education and age and other factors, you are left with the unexplained differences -- you are a left with a persistent pay gap.

In fact, while women have been making consistent progress in closing the education gap, it hasn't translated into a narrowing of the pay gap.

Something else is at work here. Conversations with men and women from all kinds of work settings together with the best available research suggest that working moms continue to face discrimination -- sometimes blatant -- and at other times, more subtle forms that play out in hiring, compensation, and promotion decisions.

Part of addressing the persistent pay gap is aggressively challenging gender stereotypes wherever they appear -- in the media, our workplaces, our communities. But there is also a need to strengthen the law that addresses gender discrimination.

When Congress returns after the election for its lame duck session, the Senate should pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and send it on to the President. It will strengthen the original Equal Pay Act by:

  • Prohibiting employers from punishing employees for sharing salary information with co-workers.
  • Making discrimination costly to employers by making those who bring gender discrimination cases eligible for compensatory and punitive damages as is the case with race and ethnicity discrimination cases.
  • Developing new training programs for women and girls on how to negotiate compensation packages and recognizing employers who have eliminated pay disparities.

Families are increasingly dependent on wives' incomes, with wives' earnings now accounting for 36 percent of total income. But, as much as equal pay is about family economics, it's also about our country's values. People -- whether they are women or men, moms or dads, black or white -- should be paid the same amount for the same work.

So, let's celebrate the progress women have made in the U.S., as reflected in the new Global Gender Gap rankings. But let's also take actions to ensure that the progress continues.

Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney represents parts of Queens and Manhattan in the U.S. House of Representatives where she is the Chair of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee.