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It's time women had equal pay, once and for all

Women now make up half the U.S. workforce, but they still haven't managed to achieve pay equity. Women must work more than 16 months to earn what men make in 12 months — for the same job. They earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

That doesn't mean there has been no progress. The pay gap actually has narrowed by 12 cents.

It took 40 years.

At that snail's pace, several more generations of women could be underpaid before pay equity is achieved. But some in Washington are working toward speeding up the pace, and the issue is receiving fresh attention because Tuesday was Equal Pay Day.

In January 2009 President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ledbetter was a 19-year employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Alabama when she learned from an anonymous note that she had been paid less than her male counterparts for the same work for years.

Ledbetter sued, but in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against her because she did not challenge the inequity within 180 days of the company's original decision to underpay her. Of course, Ledbetter didn't know she was underpaid then, or for many years after, because Goodyear employees were not allowed to talk about their pay.

That injustice was corrected this year after Congress approved the Fair Pay Act, which originally was co-sponsored by then-Sen. Barack Obama. The act essentially allows the 180-day clock to start over with each inequitable paycheck.

The new law makes it easier to challenge inequitable pay, but workers still are handicapped because they often don't know what their co-workers earn or how to fight against unequal pay.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, already passed in the U.S. House but languishing in the Senate, would update the 1963 Equal Pay Act. That's right, equal pay for equal work was mandated in 1963 in legislation signed by President John F. Kennedy. It just hasn't succeeded in stopping gender wage discrimination.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would create incentives for employers to follow the law, would strengthen federal enforcement of the equal pay law and penalties for violators, and would prohibit retaliation against workers who ask their employer about wage practices or disclose their own wages. Employers who wanted to pay a woman less than a man for the same job would have to prove there was a reasonable business justification for it.

Critics of such legislation contend that women earn less because they choose careers that pay less, or because they take time off to have children, or because they are unwilling to work as many hours as men.

However, the American Association of University Women did a research report, Behind the Pay Gap, and found that women already are paid less than their male counterparts within their first year of entering the workplace. When the researchers controlled for occupation, hours and parenthood, there was still a gap in pay that seemed attributable only to sex discrimination.

There is much more at stake here than just fairness. Margaret Hyde of Clearwater, a senior woman who represents AAUW causes locally, emphasized the impact on women when they retire. Social Security and pension benefits are linked to an employee's salary. A woman who has been underpaid during her career receives lower pension and Social Security benefits, increasing the possibility that she will live in poverty in the last years of her life.

According to AAUW, over a working lifetime the disparity between men's and women's wages costs the average woman and her family $700,000 to $2 million in lost pay. Consider that it takes women more than 16 months to earn the same pay that their male counterparts make in 12 months, and it is easy to see how quickly the losses can grow.

With so many women now supporting their families, unequal pay leads to unequal wealth in ways that affect the entire family. There is less money to pay bills, less income to qualify for a mortgage, less money available to send children to college. The affects ripple through our culture.

Hyde is excited about a provision in the Paycheck Fairness Act that would create a grant program to fund salary negotiation training for women and girls.

"Lord knows we need that," Hyde said. When it comes to negotiating, "We can do it for others, but we have trouble doing it for ourselves."

Equal pay for equal work ought to be a given. That it isn't is, literally, a crime. Obama said early in his administration that advancing pay equity would be one of his goals. He has been a little busy with other matters, but this month would be an excellent time for him and the Senate to move passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act to the front burner.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the Times.

It's time women had equal pay, once and for all 04/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 20, 2010 11:39am]
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