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

On 50th Anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, We Must Make Equal Pay for Equal Work a Reality

Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, enshrining in law the principle that a worker should be judged and compensated based not on gender, but on his or her qualifications, skills and performance.

Five decades later, as we celebrate the anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, we are reminded that much work remains as we strive to translate this noble principle into practice. Today, an American woman makes only 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes. The fact is, women are working harder than ever, but they are not being fairly compensated for their contributions to our economy.

This is wrong, it is unjust, and it undermines the economic security of our families. Millions of families are dependent on a woman's paycheck. In fact, 71 percent of mothers are active participants in the labor force, and four out of 10 mothers are the primary breadwinner for their households. Two-thirds of mothers bring home at least a quarter of their family's earnings. Because they are underpaid, they struggle to put food on the table and pay for child care, health care and other essentials for their families. Year after year, women's lost wages add up. It is estimated that unequal pay practices cost a woman on average $400,000 over the course of her career. By their elder years, this can mean the difference between having a secure retirement and scrimping to survive.

This year, I reintroduced the Fair Pay Act, which I have done in every Congress since 1996. The Fair Pay Act would address systemic factors at the core of the pay gap -- the fact that women and men are largely segregated into different occupations, and that "women's jobs" are paid significantly less than "men's jobs" even when those jobs are equivalent in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions. For example, it makes no sense that a housekeeper earns far less than a janitor.

The Fair Pay Act would require employers to provide equal pay for jobs that are equivalent. It would also require employers to make public their employees' pay scales -- by job category, not by individual employee. This will give women the information they need to negotiate for fair pay without having to resort to costly, time-consuming, and often hostile litigation.

Along with my efforts to pass the Fair Pay Act, I am pleased to be an original cosponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has also been reintroduced in this Congress. The Paycheck Fairness Act passed the House in the 111th Congress but unfortunately, while gaining majority support in the Senate, has been filibustered repeatedly. The bill would strengthen penalties and close loopholes in the enforcement of current equal pay laws so that they will be more effective protections against discrimination.

American women have waited far too long for fair pay, and these long-overdue bills are critical steps toward achieving it. Fifty years after President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, let us recommit ourselves to eliminating discrimination in the workplace and making equal pay for equal work a reality. America's women -- and the families that rely on them -- deserve fairness on the job.