09/02/2014 01:00 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

A Labor Day Call for Equal Pay

Every year we celebrate Labor Day to recognize the contributions American workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country. And yet every year we fail to adequately recognize a vital segment of our workforce that has been a major part of that success story: Women.

Women comprise 50 percent of working Americans, yet they are paid only 78 cents on the dollar compared with men.

This disparity actually hurts our nation's economy:
• If women received equal pay, the U.S. economy would have produced additional income of almost $448 billion, which represents nearly 3 percent of the country's 2012 gross domestic product.
• In California, women who are employed fulltime lose a combined total of nearly $38 billion on average every year because of the wage gap. In Los Angeles, they lose more than $6 billion annually.

Mount St. Mary's College's annual Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California looks at the issues -- including the wage gap -- affecting California's more than 19 million women and girls. This year's report again gave us cause for optimism and concern.

Providing a higher education that prepares women for a competitive global marketplace and increasing the ranks of women entrepreneurs and business leaders can help address that wage gap.

Our economy increasingly is driven by science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations that typically offer a 33-percent pay premium over non-STEM jobs. Yet girls are less likely to pursue STEM fields of study and even fewer are likely to pursue related careers.

From a global competitive perspective, increasing the ranks of women in STEM careers should be of paramount importance, especially for the tech industry, which continues to be criticized for its lack of diversity. However, as of spring 2010, fewer than 20 percent of the bachelor's degrees in computer science and engineering and only 10 percent of the degrees in technology fields were awarded to California women. Nationally, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs.

Undergraduate STEM research programs, like the one Mount St. Mary's College launched in 2011, can provide authentic research opportunities and serve as a platform for future research and success in STEM fields. Through a five-year, $6 million Title III federal grant, we also are enhancing STEM curricula for Hispanic, female and low-income students.

A second strategy for addressing the wage gap is to increase the ranks of women entrepreneurs who contribute to both their household incomes and to economic growth. California is home to some 1.1 million women-owned businesses, the greatest number in the country. However, only 11 percent of them have paid employees. Small businesses are employment drivers, and by providing access to capital, training and mentorship, we can help women-owned businesses expand into larger ones that create new job opportunities for working families.

We also need to increase the number of women in corporate leadership positions who can advocate for fair workplace policies. At California's 400 largest public companies, women represented only 3 percent of CEOs and 11 percent of board positions. In 2013, 27 percent of California's 400 largest public companies had no women at all among their directors and highest-paid executives.

Women and men alike have an economic stake in resolving the gender wage gap. Here's what we can do to make a difference:

• Vote. Support political candidates who advocate for equal pay, wages increases for working women and families, and protections for pregnant women and new mothers.
• Get involved. Support programs that train women to become effective leaders and organizations that provide community resources on issues affecting women.
• Serve in public office. Influence government policy. Take advantage of training programs that prepare women to run for public office.
• Become a mentor. Encourage girls and young women to put college first. Help them make smart, long-term life decisions.
• Use your purchasing power. Hold businesses accountable for providing a supportive workplace for their employees and ensuring their executive leadership and boards of directors proportionally include women.

During World War II, the National War Labor Board urged employers to voluntarily make "adjustments which equalize wage or salary rates paid to females with the rates paid to males for comparable quality and quantity of work on the same or similar operations."

That goal remains essentially unrealized, and without a concerted effort to change, it may be another 50 years before the gender wage gap is finally closed.

For the sake of our nation, we can ill afford to wait.

Ann McElaney-Johnson is president of Mount St. Mary's College, the only women's college in Los Angeles. Founded in 1925, it has the longest-running women's leadership program west of the Mississippi. MONEY Magazine this year ranked Mount St. Mary's as the No. 1 college in the United States in its list of "Colleges That Add the Most Value." In 2013, U.S. News & World Report ranked it as one of the best regional universities in the West.