Open a 1960s-era newspaper and you likely will find ads for "Female Help - Wanted" and "Male Help - Wanted," listing identical jobs that paid women less than men. Fast-forward fifty years to a recent Pew Research Center study showing how much women's roles have changed, finding mothers are now the sole or primary breadwinner in four in ten American households, nearly quadrupling the number of mom breadwinners in 1960. But far from the end of civilization as we know it, the Pew study and similar findings by the Center for American Progress in 2009 simply confirmed what most women already know -- that women increasingly are sole-, top-, or co-earners for their families, responsible for providing income essential to making ends meet.
This backdrop provides important context for the fiftieth anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, and it presents an opportunity for a new equal pay conversation that connects the dots between women's pay, women's economic security, and women's equal opportunity to provide for their families. The Equal Pay Act, signed into law in 1963, broke new ground to prohibit paying women lower wages than men for equal work. The law has helped women make enormous progress and remains a vital tool, particularly as women's roles have shifted. Today, pay discrimination has economic implications not only for women, but also for women's families that depend on their salaries -- and it can push families on the economic margins over the brink. When there are competing demands that affect whether, when, or how much women can work -- such as the family responsibilities they often must juggle -- it means we need multi-faceted solutions not only focused on fair pay, but also on navigating the work-life conflicts affecting families' overall economic well-being.
These days, most discussions about equal pay and economic security seem stuck in a partisan stalemate. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make much-needed improvements to the law to uncover discrimination, has been blocked repeatedly in the Senate. At the other end of the spectrum, a controversial "comp time" bill recently passed by the House, largely along partisan lines, offers some workers the possibility of future time off, but only if they work overtime for no pay. Thus, it would do little to address the predicament many families face -- the need for a fair wages and flexibility.
But there are still ways to move forward beyond Congress, in the private and public sectors, and even among employees themselves.
The Administration has made important progress on equal pay, creating a task force to coordinate federal enforcement and most recently undertaking an effort to reduce pay disparities in the federal workforce. It now could focus much-needed attention on equal pay for low wage workers by finalizing a long-awaited rule to provide minimum wage protections to certain domestic workers, disproportionately women of color. It also could strengthen its ability to investigate pay discrimination by working with the business community to resolve how best to collect pay data without overly burdening employers or jeopardizing privacy. The Administration could build on the successful 2010 White House workplace flexibility summit and collaborate with business and non-profits alike to get employer commitments to adopt flexible workplace policies. Most importantly, it can continue to use its convening power and megaphone to help elevate the continued need for policies that promote fair pay and economic security.
Employers also can do more. Nothing prohibits employers from reviewing their own pay practices regularly, training supervisors on fair pay practices and evaluating how well they comply, eliminating penalties against employees who discuss their pay and offering greater flexibility to both low wage and higher paid employees. And, employees themselves can become better informed. They can do their own research on negotiation strategies -- where studies have shown women are less likely to excel -- or on the growing number of online tools with salary information for different occupations. Everyone can play a role in fostering workplaces that are better informed and more responsive to families' economic challenges.
The Equal Pay Act built on the power and promise of our nation's fundamental commitment to equality to help propel generations of women forward. It is a legacy that has the same power today -- to inspire change critical to securing women's economic future, and that of their families, for years to come.