06/10/2013 07:01 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

A Promise in Progress: The 50th Anniversary of the Equal Pay Act

Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, cementing into law the common sense principle that employees should receive equal pay for equal work, regardless of their gender. At the time, women earned only 59 percent as much as their male counterparts for the same work.

Through the hard work of advocates and activists, real progress has been made. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 formally banned discrimination on the basis of gender and in 1972 Congress extended protections enshrined in the Equal Pay Act to include professional, executive, administrative, and contractor roles. More recently, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 provided greater legal recourse for employees subject to wage discrimination.

Despite these and other efforts, inequity persists. Today, women earn on average 77 percent of their male counterparts' wages. The stakes for closing the pay gap could not be higher for the American economy -- a recent Pew survey found that 40 percent of households with children under the age of 18 are supported by working mothers who are the sole or primary breadwinner.

President Kennedy understood that justice is achieved across many fronts, calling the Equal Pay Act of 1963 merely "a first step" from which "much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity."

To close the gender pay gap, we must first understand what drives it. Even though women outpace men in college graduation rates, The American Association of University Women (AAUW) recently published a study finding an 18 percent earnings gap between women and men one year after graduating from college.

The study notes that 61 percent of the gender wage gap that exists only a year after graduating college can be attributed to social, cultural, and family factors that influence different education and career "choices" between women and men. For example, research from the U.S. Department of Commerce found that 40 percent of males with a college degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) work in "STEM occupations," compared to only 26 percent of women with STEM degrees. Women with STEM degrees are twice as likely as men to enter education or healthcare occupations.

Additionally, 39 percent of the gender wage gap that exists one year after graduating college is unexplained even after "controlling for factors found to affect earnings," including occupation, hours worked per week, marital status and undergraduate academic performance. Contrary to some beliefs, this finding implies that overt gender wage discrimination still persists and must be addressed. Additionally, less overt factors -- such as the disparity between women and men in negotiating their salary or demanding a promotion -- are also likely part of this gap.

Therefore, while much of today is about celebrating the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the pioneers of past progress, it is also about acknowledging a stalled promise and the work that lies ahead. We can close the gender wage gap by committing ourselves to three major objectives:

Ending overt and subconscious gender discrimination in the workplace. A broad survey by Catalyst found that stereotypically masculine behaviors are commonly used to describe people with strong technical and analytical skills while stereotypically feminine behaviors are associated with strong administrative or interpersonal skills. Moreover, in assigning high-visibility projects critical for future promotion, senior managers often rely upon these stereotypes subconsciously. Only 51 percent of companies in the Catalyst survey employed a Diversity director or officer to establish accountability for workplace diversity. Moreover, filings from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment remain real workplace challenges for women.

Enabling truly equal career and family choices across genders. The United States stubbornly remains one of the only nations that does not offer federally-sponsored paid family leave for new parents despite its indisputable benefits. A study by the White House Council on Women and Girls found that in 2007, 23 percent of first time mothers were older than 30, compared with only 4 percent in 1970. Moreover, the study details that during the average workday, employed married women spend nearly an hour more than their male partners on household activities and caring for household members. While women earn over half of all undergraduate degrees, they earn less than 20 percent of high-earning degrees like engineering and computer science. Cultural socialization factors, in addition to corporate and federal policies, certainly contribute towards the "choices" young girls make. Many early career professionals today will recall a Barbie doll released by Mattel in 1991 that infamously proclaimed, "Math class is tough. Party dresses are fun!"

Encouraging women to lean in to their ambitions. In a recent interview with NPR, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg observed, "In the United States, women have had 14 percent of the top corporate jobs and 17 percent of the board seats for 10 years. Ten years of no progress. In those same 10 years, women are getting more and more of the graduate degrees, more and more of the undergraduate degrees...But there's absolutely been no progress at the top." As noted above, much of the gap is due to external factors, including wage discrimination, gender stereotypes, and women shouldering a disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities. However, as Sandberg notes in her recent book Lean In, there are also opportunities to advocate for more equitable pay and career opportunities. For example, a study of graduating MBA students from Carnegie Mellon in 2003 found that 57 percent of male graduates negotiated their starting salary, compared to only 7 percent of their female classmates. Encouraging acceptance of diverse leadership styles and emphasizing critical workplace skills, such as negotiation, remains an important piece of bridging the wage gap.

Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy declared that "our economy today depends upon women." His words are even truer today than they were then. While much progress has been made since the signing of the Equal Pay Act, much work remains to be done. Closing the gender wage gap is both an economic and moral imperative for our country and we must finish the job. Let's get to work.