We’ve come a long way, baby. Sort of – National Consumers League

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

Today marks the day when the typical woman’s earnings catch up to those of her male counterpart’s from 2011. This year is also the 49th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 when women were averaging 56 cents for every dollar men made.

As the saying goes, ‘we’ve come a long way, baby,’ but we have a ways to go. Back in the 1960s, women had few career choices – nurse, teacher, or secretary. As illustrated in Mad Men, women who chose different career paths or tried to reach for more, such as Peggy Olson, were often ridiculed and made painfully aware of how little they were paid or respected in comparison to their male counterparts.

Today, American women are paid 77 cents for every dollar men are paid. This creates a $10,784 yearly wage gap and the numbers for minority women are worse. African-American women are paid only 62 cents and Hispanic women only 54 cents for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man. These wage gaps result in a loss of $19,575 for African-American women and $23,873 for Hispanic women every year. According to the Department of Labor, the wage gap between men and women translates to a loss of about $380,000 over a woman’s career.

The wage gap is not only a matter of injustice but is a matter of economic stability. According to the National Women’s Law Center, an additional $10,784 per year is enough to:

  • Pay the median cost of rent and utilities for a year with over $1,000 to spare or the median mortgage payment and utilities for over ten months
  • Feed a household of four for a year and five months with more than $300 to spare
  • Pay a year and a half of childcare cost for a four-year-old with over $100 to spare
  • Pay for two and a half years of family health insurance premiums in an employer-sponsored health insurance program with over $1,400 to spare


According to a Government Accountability Office study, the wage gap persists even when accounting for personal choices, such as work patterns and education. As reported by the National Partnership of Women and Families, working mothers pay a “penalty” for having children while fathers get a bonus. Nationally, women with children are paid 2.5 percent less than women without children, while men with children experience a boost of 2.1 percent over men without children. Education doesn’t seem to even the playing field. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, women with professional degrees are paid just 67 cents for every dollar paid to men with professional degrees – women with doctoral degrees are paid less than men with master’s degrees and women with master’s degrees are paid less than men with bachelor’s degrees.

Not all hope is lost, in 2009 President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation passed in the new administration. The legislation expanded workers’ rights to sue in a discrimination kind of case, and relaxed the statute of limitations, and restarting the six-month clock every time the worker receives a paycheck. But we need more to protect women and families. The Paycheck Fairness Act was reintroduced in 2011 in the House of Representatives by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro with 177 co-sponsors (H.R. 1519) and reintroduced in the Senate by Senator Barbara Mikulski with 34 co-sponsors (S.797).

The Paycheck Fairness Act would:

  • Prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who discuss salaries with colleagues
  • Put gender-based discrimination on equal footing with other forms of wage discrimination – such as race or national origin – and allow women to take legal action for damages
  • Require employers to prove that pay differences exist for legitimate job related reasons
  • Create a negotiations skills training program for women and girls
  • Provide businesses (especially small ones) assistance with equal pay practices
  • Enhance the Department of Labor’s and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s ability to investigate and enforce pay discrimination laws

Unfortunately, both bills are sitting in committees and haven’t seen much play over the last few months especially with the campaign season ramping up. Its’ time to urge our lawmakers to due right by America’s women and families and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.

For more information please visit the National Women’s Law Center, the National Partnership for Women & Families, the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.