Fifty Years After The Equal Pay Act, American Women Still Fight For Equality

The pay gap continues to plague not only women, but the economic and moral health of American democracy.
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    American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law. (Public domain photo/Abbie Rowe/JFK Presidential Library and Museum)

    American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law. (Public domain photo/Abbie Rowe/JFK Presidential Library and Museum)

    “Fifty years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women continue to be paid less than men in nearly every occupation. Because pay is a fundamental part of everyday life, enabling individuals to support themselves and their families, the pay gap evokes passionate debate.” relays a new study from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), released on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s signing the Equal Pay Act this week.

    Kennedy signed the 1963 document into federal law in an effort to abolish wage discrimination based on gender. It mandates that men and women be given equal pay for equal work.

    However, half a century later, women are still paid significantly less. Many questions linger as to why this is the case.

    Currently in the U.S., women earn an average of 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. For African-American and Hispanic women that figure is even less: 64 and 54 cents, respectively.

    ”Although the data confirming the persistence of the pay gap are indisputable, the reasons behind the gap remain the subject of controversy. Are women paid less because they make different choices than men do? Does discrimination play a role? What other issues might be involved?” the AAUW study asks. That these questions are still being asked is evidenced by the fact that today the Obama administration is pushing Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, designed to make wage differences more transparent.

    But the legislation is still stirring up debate over its necessity, and women must continue struggling to gain equality.


    Controversy over women’s pay

    Some have challenged the idea that women currently make less than men, and question why a new body of legislation is needed on the matter.

    “I absolutely think that we would be better off without the Equal Pay Act,” Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative and libertarian women’s advocacy group, told NPR. “I don’t deny that there is a wage gap. The question for me is, how big is that gap, and what are the causes?”

    According to a 2010 report from analytics firm Reach Advisors, the median salary for single, childless women under the age of 30 was 8 percent higher than their male counterparts. Citing  Census Bureau figures, the firm found that this was because more women are going to college than men. This is, however, the only group of women who have a pay advantage. Other research from Reach Advisors demonstrates that if women opt to have children that advantage is canceled out.

    Schaeffer says that this so-called motherhood penalty in pay is due to choices women make to work fewer hours or take time off, thus affording them less experience, which translates to less pay. She also argues anti-discrimination laws actually hurt working women.

    Schaeffer claims that increased governmental regulations will make it more difficult for employers to grant flexible work arrangements because they’re required to track pay and hours worked. She believes that women make the decision to work less and therefore get paid less.

    “We often talk as if men and women live in a vacuum, and as if what’s good for my husband or what’s good for me doesn’t benefit the other person. At the end of the day, as I see it, our interests are tied. So I think that the idea of a motherhood penalty is a little bit outdated,” Schaeffer says.

    However, the Pew Research Center found recently that almost 40 percent of women are the sole breadwinners for their families in the U.S., and that a majority of them are single women.

    The study says that these “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: 5.1 million (37 percent) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63 percent) are single mothers.

    The study also found that the income gap between the two groups is quite large. The median total family income of married mothers who earn more than their husbands was nearly $80,000 in 2011, well above the national median of $57,100 for all families with children — and nearly four times the $23,000 median for families led by a single mother.

    The federal poverty level for 2012 was set at $23,050 (total yearly income) for a family of four.


    GOP blocks equal pay bill

    The disparity in wages among men and women led Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and a number of other female senators to co-sponsor the Paycheck Fairness Act, an update to the law.

    “We believe this is an economic issue. It’s not only about women but the middle class, and if you’re not paying a woman dollar for dollar for the exact same work you’re not really tapping the full potential of the economy,” Gillibrand told CBS.

    “And why wouldn’t you tap the full potential of 52 percent of the resources of the women of this country? If you paid women for dollar for dollar, you could raise the GDP by up to 9 percent.”

    On June 5, the Senate failed to secure the 60 votes needed to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. Gillibrand believes that this setback was the result of politics. “We are really undermining the ability of our economy to truly take off by holding our women back through a lot of these structural impediments like having a minimum wage that’s $3 below the poverty line,” she said.

    “It is incredibly disappointing that in this make-or-break moment for the middle class, Senate Republicans put partisan politics ahead of American women and their families,” President Obama said in a statement after the vote.

    The pay gap continues to plague not only women, but the economic and moral health of American democracy. Since President Kennedy’s initial legislation to address the problem a half a century ago, women have made great strides in the workforce, but clearly there is more work to be done.

    “Gender discrimination is one potential contributor to the unexplained pay gap,” the AAUW study concludes. “The increasing numbers of claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the millions of dollars employers pay annually in awards, settlements, and other legal fees make clear that gender discrimination remains a serious problem in American workplaces.”

    It’s time we take another step in the direction of creating true equality between men and women.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.

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