06/29/2012 04:56 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

Equal Pay, Now

We'd all like to think, in 2012, that pay discrimination is a thing of the past. But the pay gap still exists, and it's big: women earn an average of 77 cents on a man's dollar, and African-American and Latina women are paid even less than white women. Young or old, the pay gap continues to hurt women and their families throughout their lives: over the course of their careers, women miss out on an average of $430,000 that we've earned but don't receive.

It's not just about being able to more easily afford life's necessities -- the amount we lose annually to pay discrimination could cover a year's worth of rent, feed a household of four or pay childcare costs -- it's about taking charge of our lives and demanding justice in our workplaces.

We can fight to improve our laws to make it easier for women to find out whether they have been paid fairly and get justice if they haven't. Legislative solutions are crucial, but women also need to feel comfortable and entitled to fight for equal pay throughout their careers, from their first job to their last.

First and foremost, we need to break the silence. So many of the young people I speak with think that talking about money is a taboo. Too often we assume that salaries are to be accepted, not negotiated; that promotions are to be received, not sought after; that raises are to be given, not requested. That's understandable. After all, job market is tough these days, and many Americans -- especially recent college graduates -- feel lucky to have a job at all. But that's no excuse to settle for anything less than 100% of what you're worth.

However, you can't earn what you're worth unless you know what you're worth. Knowledge is power and research is empowering -- do your due diligence to find out what people in similar positions make. That information is out there, and the numbers aren't divided by gender. When you know what you're worth, you're in a much more credible position to negotiate for the salary you deserve.

Once you know what you're worth, ask for it. Negotiation is key, so women need to be prepared to make their case. Recruit friends and family to help you practice; there are also workshops out there that can help you refine this crucial skill. All too often, we wait. We wait to be called up for a performance review, we wait for a cost of living increase, we wait for our boss to promote us. But we don't have to. Take charge. Make your goals clear, and have a timeline to achieve them. When the time comes, act.

Modesty may be a virtue, but the crux of negotiating is learning how to celebrate your accomplishments and use them to your advantage. The more confidently women trumpet their achievements, the more difficult it is for an employer to undervalue her worth.

Fighting for equal pay is crucial to women, their families and the economy at large. But the impact is even greater than that. It demonstrates leadership and commands respect from employers. It dignifies working women everywhere. Like other systemic problems our country has faced, pay discrimination won't disappear on its own. It's hard to believe that in 2012, some employers think they can take advantage of their female employees to make a buck. But it's no surprise that in 2012, women across America are ready to put a stop to it.