04/08/2014 02:24 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

Equal Pay Means Exactly That

Picture yourself in an office. The person next to you started the same day you did. You have the same job. You are equally qualified. You work just as hard. Your output is equal. Yet, you earn 23% less than he does.

Welcome to life as the "average woman" in America.

Today, almost 51 years after John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, a woman earns 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. We recognize this discrepancy with Equal Pay Day. April 8 marks the date where if a man started working at his average salary, by year's end he would have earned the same as a woman who had worked the entire year. In effect, a woman is unpaid for three months a year.

Throughout American history, expanding the protections afforded to workers has strengthened our nation. Today, you have recourse if you face discrimination because of your religion, race, disability, age, or gender; and in some states because of your sexual orientation.

We now face the more challenging struggle of battling the subtle discrimination that holds back millions of Americans from their full potential. I do not believe it is radical to suggest that our mothers, sisters, and daughters deserve the same wages as our fathers, brothers, and sons. In my home of Santa Clara County, female-headed households have the lowest incomes; and the lowest income households tend to have women living alone.

As I've discussed with the Administration a number of times, women in particular are threatened when they are prohibited from talking about their salaries. Being able to discuss wages empowers women, and others who might be discriminated against, to find out that they are not being paid an equal wage. Labor Secretary Perez likes to remind me that Lilly Ledbetter was kept in the dark about being paid less than her male counterparts for 20 years at Goodyear Tire Company. Only an anonymous tip allowed her to seek redress.

That is why I am so proud that President Obama is signing an executive order today that will protect federal contract workers from retaliation for discussing their wages. Like his raising of the minimum wage, the President's actions on behalf of federal contract workers will impact the millions of people hired through taxpayer dollars. The next step is for Congress to make sure our economy works for all Americans.

I am proud to be a partner for the President in Congress, and to join with my fellow Democrats in fighting for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which I co-sponsored. When enacted, this law will: 1) protect all workers from retaliation for discussing their wages; 2) require that unequal wages have a legitimate business justification; and 3) give men and women who face pay discrimination legal recourse. This law would strengthen the Equal Pay Act, which has not been updated since 1963.

The Paycheck Fairness Act will build on the legislative successes we have made in recent years. In 2009, I was honored to vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This law, the first bill signed by President Obama, restored the right of women to challenge unfair pay in court. This was another step in the unfinished project of achieving pay equity.

Pay equity is not just a women's issue. It is a question of what kind of society we want to build for our children. Women of color face an even larger pay gap than their White counterparts. Since the Great Recession, families across the country have grown to rely more and more on women's wages to make ends meet.

The question, ultimately, is simple: Do we want to live in a society where your gender, or your skin color, determines the opportunities available to you? Do we want to live in a society where blatant discrimination forces families to struggle to put food on their tables?

I believe the answer, as well, is simple: No.

The Fair Pay Act is a critical step in building a fair society we can be proud of. As the President said in his State of the Union address, "when women succeed, America succeeds."