Equal Pay Has Been the Law For 50 Years, So Where's the Progress?

Last Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which President John F. Kennedy signed into law on June 10, 1963. As Kennedy said on that important day, “While much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity — for the average woman worker earns only 60% of the average wage for men — this legislation is a significant step forward.” Indeed it was, but as difficult as it was for a family to live on one income in the 1960s, it seems nearly impossible today. 

Equal pay is more important than ever considering that women are now the sole or primary source of income for 40% of households with children, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis released last month.

Wendy Wang, a research associate at the Pew Research Center and one of the authors of this report, says the economic contributions women make to their families has grown enormously in the past five decades. However, she referenced another report released in March saying, “Fifty-two percent of working moms say that they would prefer to be at home raising children, but they need to work because of the income.”

Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, says this increase in "breadwinning moms" means more to families than ever before. “Making sure that women are paid fairly is important not just because of individual justice, but for the sake of child well-being.” 

Yet, some politicians believe paying women the same as men is not that important. What is important is, “making certain that women are recognized by those companies,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) on a recent episode of NBC’s Meet The Press

As the Huffington Post reports, Blackburn voted against two major women’s rights bills in 2009, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act.

What’s even more surprising is the continued lack of support from female politicians. The Senate rejected the Paycheck Fairness Act again last year, and female Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) all voted no. 

Ayotte believes there are enough laws in place to protect women from unequal pay, even though women still earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn.

Women stand to lose real dollar amounts because of that discrepancy. In April, the National Women’s Law Center released a report stating that the gender wage gap translates into $11,084 less per year in median earnings for women. That’s almost the amount of one full year of daycare for a child. That’s cooking at home and eating out for a year with about $500 to spare. That’s tuition and fees at a four-year public in-state college with more than $2,000 left for books, school supplies, and whatever else a student might need. Just to put it in perspective. 

The Council on Contemporary Families held an Equal Pay Symposium recently, which showcased the research of leading family practitioners and researchers who are trying to investigate the many complex reasons why women are paid less than men. Coontz says some are connected to women's greater responsibility for childcare, outright prejudice, and/or what sociologists have called, “benevolent sexism,” which Coontz explains is “the idea that women are somehow naturally nicer, more communal in outlook, less individualistic, and therefore don't want more money, they just want to do good and be recognized for it.”

It is these ideas that lead employers to offer women less money. “So when Representative Blackburn says women don't want equal pay, just recognition, she is perpetuating a long-standing excuse for paying women unfairly,” Coontz says.

Joya Misra, professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts, featured her research, “Which Policies Promote Gender Pay Equality?” at the symposium. While looking at these issues across other wealthy countries, she consistently found that publicly subsidized childcare and paid leaves help narrow the gender wage gap.

“In countries with effective state support for childcare and paid leaves, men and women earn more comparable wages, controlling for other factors like age, education, and marital status,” she says. “In fact, these factors are also most effective in explaining differences in employment rates, and poverty rates, cross-nationally.”

While there are laws in place to protect women from gender wage discrimination, there still is plenty of work to be done. “One that may slip off the radar is to ensure that everyone — men and women — receive a living wage,” Misra says. “Too many people work without benefits, too many people work multiple jobs to try to cobble together a living wage.” 

But if there still are female politicians who believe we don’t have a problem, then maybe they should try living on a wage that is not congressionally mandated to be equal to that of their male colleagues. 

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Melanie Breault

Melanie Breault just returned from teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. She now works for a women's nonprofit in Downtown NYC. She earned her bachelor's degree in economic and political journalism from Ithaca College in upstate New York. She likes to tackle issues facing marginalized workers and struggling students in her free time.

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