Home Maureen Dwyer: Equal Pay Day Anniversary

Maureen Dwyer: Equal Pay Day Anniversary


gay-equalityI sat in the audience as Xavier University beautifully graduated its class of 2013. Men and women strode across the stage to warm hugs and a general spirit of accomplishment. But the dirty little secret is that while the university has treated all students equally and fairly in application for admission and in judging financial need, the women graduates will see a pay gap between their starting salaries and those of their male friends – even if they don’t know it yet.

The American Association of University Women’ recent report, Graduating to a Pay Gap, tracked the average annual earnings of men and women who majored in the same field one year after graduation. The report is further proof that equity, while assumed, is not a reality, because the AAUW researchers looked at wages of single women, unencumbered by decisions based on marriage and family, and controlled for variables usually given as reasons for pay discrepancies (hours worked, occupation, etc.). Even after controlling for all of those factors, the report still found that a female graduate one year out of college earned an average of 7 percent less than her male counterpart. Her raises and retirement are all based on this starting salary, making it almost impossible to catch up. And as a single woman with a comparatively lower salary but an equivalent student debt to her male classmates, her disposable income will be proportionately lower.

How could this have happened? Aren’t there laws preventing discrimination like this?

There’s a creaky old law called the Equal Pay Act, whose 50th anniversary is June 10. Unsurprisingly, a law that’s been around that long without being updated needs major repair.

The work force has certainly changed since 1963. I can remember “jobs for men” and “jobs for women” columns in newspaper classified ads, though the separate advertisements are no longer legal. I remember when my seatmate on a recent bus ride home told me of her experience 45 years ago when she was 25 and found out her male colleague at her newspaper was making much more money than her, even though she had an extra degree and was more aggressive in getting stories placed. The response when she asked for parity in pay was that he was married and had a child.

Today she wouldn’t hear those words, but we might be dealing with the same mindset. Our esteemed members of Congress are, for the most part, of an age and income level where double-income families are moot. But that doesn’t mean they can ignore the fact that women make up half the nation’s population and 60 percent of its college graduates. While women are increasingly primary breadwinners and the old gender rules are being bent and discarded, they are still supposed to be grateful for opportunity to work outside the home. And the stereotype remains that women should be paid less than men because they always have been.

Equal Pay Act loopholes must be closed if we have any hope of closing the wage gap and getting rid of these stereotypes. Even though clear and open access to salary schedules exists in the federal government and public education, current law has no provisions preventing employers in these sectors from retaliating against employees who ask about wages or share salary information. The current law also makes it too easy for employers to pay different wages to male and female employees performing the same job. This is not to say that certain jobs shouldn’t be rewarded with bonus or salary differential for risk or skill scarcity – just that legitimate business justifications should be the clear reason for the pay difference.

On this 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, what’s really needed isn’t a celebration of an outdated law, but a new birth of legislation such as the Paycheck Fairness Act — the hammer to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act’s nail. While the Ledbetter Act, enacted in 2009, reinstated employees’ ability to have their day in court, we need further action to give employees and employers the tools they need to close the pay gap. The Paycheck Fairness Act would close Equal Pay Act loopholes, prohibit retaliation against workers who disclose their wages to coworkers, and bring the Equal Pay Act in line with all other civil rights laws.

It’s time for Senator Mark Warner to join his colleague, Senator Tim Kaine, in cosponsoring the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Our daughters, wives and mothers deserve it.

Dwyer is co-president of the American Association of University Women Reston-Herndon Branch. Column distributed courtesy Virginia Forum.



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