THE BLOG
11/05/2014 03:30 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Half a Million Dollar Rip-Off: Unequal Pay Every Day

Bernd Opitz via Getty Images

The war on women permeates American society. Consider the non-progress of equal pay for equal work.

Imagine the outrage if employers routinely told two men applying for the same job, "I need forklift operators. You both have equal experience. I'll hire you both. Of course, Bob will earn one dollar an hour because he's short, and John will get 78 cents an hour because he's tall." Tall men wouldn't tolerate height discrimination and would quickly enact laws prohibiting it.

Yet, women in American today earn 78 cents to a man's dollar, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and have struggled for decades to achieve equal pay for equal work.

During WWII, women joined the work force and men joined the armed force. In 1945, the men came home and employers were allowed to replace female workers with males without cause. Many companies who had hired women during the war, reverted to hiring only men, and working women saw their jobs reclassified and their wages lowered. Newspapers published separate job listings for men and women and ran identical jobs, but with different pay scales for men and women.

In the 1950's, women entered the job market in great numbers, and bosses (usually men) paid them less for equal work because, supposedly, women didn't need the money. They worked for extra money and men worked to support their families. Also, old cultural messages taught that women belonged in the home taking care of children and should be punished for invading men's terrain.

Feminists fought to correct the gender wage gap and, because of their efforts, President John F. Kennedy signed The Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963. It read in part:

No employer shall discriminate between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs[,] the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex.

When Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, a woman earned 59 cents to a man's dollar. In 2014, 51 years later, women earn 78 cents per men's dollar. While this represents an improvement of 19 cents for the average woman -- or about one cent every three years -- that's still $10,876 in lost income every single year for the average woman. Over a 45-year working life, the average woman will have been paid nearly half a million dollars less than her male colleague doing the same job.

The Equal Pay Act doesn't seem to be working very well.

In 2014, women don't flit around working for pocket change. In the United States today, mothers are the primary or sole breadwinners in more than 40 percent of families. They work for the same reasons men do and merit the same pay. In any case, an employee's economic situation shouldn't matter. The argument of half a century ago that women didn't "need" the money as much as men was simply an attempt to defend the indefensible concept of different pay scales for the same work.

According the U.S. Census Bureau, women compose 47 percent of America's total labor force and are more likely than men to hold two jobs outside the home (5.2 percent or women vs. 4.6 percent of men.) Of single mothers, 74 percent of them work, and four million of them -- 29 percent --earn such low wages that they live in poverty. In families headed by single men, 670,000 -- only 13 percent -- live in poverty.

To strengthen the Equal Pay Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act was introduced in 2009 and 2011 and consistently rejected and blocked by Republican members of Congress.

Senior Senator Barbara Mikulski, (D-MD), serving in Congress since 1987, reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Bill in January 2013 arguing for its justice and labeling arguments against it as "mean or meaningless."

On April 9, 2014, in another straight party-line vote, the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 2199; 113th Congress) was again blocked by a Republican filibuster in the U.S. Senate. What is so toxic about this bill?

The Paycheck Fairness Act attempts to close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, protect female employees, praise employers who lessen gender discrimination, and make it easier to seek redress and enforce the Equal Pay Act.

It allows workers to share wage information and punishes employers who retaliate against sharers. It requires the Department of Labor (i) to increase outreach and train employers to eliminate pay inequality; (ii) to continue collecting wage information based on gender; (iii) to begin a grant program to train women in wage negotiation skills; and to establish a National Award for Pay Equity for employers who successfully move toward genderless employment. If employers don't observe gender neutrality in the work place, it allows workers to sue for punitive damages for wage discrimination.

So, if a woman employee asks the man standing next to her at an identical press and finds she's making three quarters of his wage for the same job, and she asks for a raise and her employer ignores or fires her, she can go to court. If she wins her suit, her employer will have to pay damages and change his employment practices to be gender neutral. Senator Mikulski points out that employers can avoid lawsuits by complying with the law.

On the face of it, these seem like reasonable measures to aid the Equal Pay Act in achieving its goal of pay equity. The main sticking point for the Republicans seems to be the idea that a woman can sue for enforcement of the law.

Summarizing the opposition's positions, Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote in her opinion piece in the New York Times:

The Paycheck Fairness Bill would set women against men, empower trial lawyers and activists, perpetuate falsehoods about the status of women in the workplace and create havoc in a precarious job market. It is 1970s-style gender-war feminism for a society that should be celebrating its success in substantially, if not yet completely, overcoming sex-based workplace discrimination.

Let's review the tenets of this argument.

1. She writes that women asking for more money in the job market "would set women against men" on the subject of equal pay. My question is: So what?

2. She states that hiring a lawyer to sue for equal pay empowers the lawyer, so women shouldn't sue. Er, actually it empowers the plaintiff -- in this case women who've been shortchanged. Aren't women entitled to claim what the law has deemed just?

3. She is concerned that women demanding and getting more equality in the workplace would empower activists. So?

4. She says gender discrimination in the work place is a lie. Perhaps she hasn't discussed this with the majority of working women who hold a different opinion.

5. She argues that if women received equal wages for equal work, it would "create havoc in the precarious job market." Wasn't that a key argument for retaining slavery?

6. She asserts that demands for women's equal pay are "1970s-style gender-war feminism." Actually, they're 2014 feminism, as we're only 78 percent of the way to parity.

7. And finally, she thinks women should be celebrating their lower paychecks because our society has succeeded "in substantially, if not yet completely, overcoming sex-based workplace discrimination." Be patient. Celebrate. Men prefer us when we're smiling.

Senate Republicans unanimously blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act on April 9, 2014.

What were the four female Republican Senators' reasons for opposing the bill?

Senator Kelly Ayotte, (R-NH) worried that it would prohibit merit-based pay, although merit pay is carved out in the original bill.

Senator Susan Collins, R-ME, was concerned about the suing and believed the Civil Rights Act and the 1963 Equal Pay Act provided enough protection for women. "I think this bill would result in excessive litigation that would impose a real burden, particularly on small businesses. So I think existing laws are adequate... Let's not all jump to conclusions, I don't think you can assume discrimination."

Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE) thought the bill didn't need much thought because, "It's politics... a one-sided vote for political reasons, so [Democrats] can use it in campaigns."

Senate Republicans unanimously blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act on September 15, 2014, for the second time this year with none of the four Republican Women Senators supporting it.

Although the four female Republican Senators represent only a small fraction (13 perccent) of women in the U.S., their negative votes affect all women. Do their constituents agree with them? They, together with the other 87 percent of American women, must choose between being patient -- like good girls -- or continuing the fight for equal pay at the ballot box.

Laura Riley is the author of Tell Me of Brave Women and can be reached at laura@tellmeofbravewomen.com