On June 10, 1963, President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, stating that the Act’s purpose was to “prohibit arbitrary discrimination against women in the payment of wages” and “call attention to the unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job.”
In the half-century since President Kennedy uttered those words, they still have disturbing relevance. We have made some progress toward the goal of equal pay, but not nearly enough.
There’s no question that there is greater acceptance of women in the workforce than there once was. Women now make up a much larger percentage of the workforce – nearly half of all workers today are women, compared with less than a third in the early ‘60s. And as the New York Times recently reported, the percentage of women who are the primary breadwinner in their family is on the rise. Today, wives earn more than their husbands in about 25% of all couples, compared to just 6% in 1960.
And yet despite these changes, the wage gap remains. In 1963, women earned about 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. Today, women still make significantly less than men – about 77 cents on the dollar. That means that over the course of a year, a woman will bring home thousands of dollars less than her male co-worker. And the wage gap is even greater for minority women, who are already more likely to live below the poverty line. African-American women earn about 64 cents on the dollar compared with white men, and Hispanic women earn only 54 cents on the dollar. Although there’s much debate about the causes of the persistent wage gap, a number of studies have found a significant wage gap even after controlling for factors like work experience and family responsibilities.
The Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill currently under consideration by Congress, aims to finally fulfill the promise of President Kennedy’s words from 1963. The Act would strengthen the Equal Pay Act by providing stronger remedies including compensatory and punitive damages, permitting EPA claims to be brought as class actions, and prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers for sharing information about their wages. The Paycheck Fairness Act is necessary if we are ever to end the “unconscionable practice” of paying less than equal pay for equal work. Because, as President Obama said this past Monday, “When more women are bringing home the bacon, they shouldn’t just be getting a little bit of bacon.”
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