NOTE: With so little time until the election, one of the issues that makes these weeks so urgent is the need to protect and expand women’s right to equal pay.
The pay gap between working women and men in the U.S. continues to be one of the highest ranking concerns for women. It is also a priority for men, because when one earner in a family brings in less than she should, the family suffers overall.
Though “equal pay for equal work” has been the law since 1963, disparities in pay between men and women for full–time, year–round workers are not lessening substantially, and cannot be expected to go away naturally, as some conservatives claim (after all, it’s already been 49 years).
81 Cents to a Man’s Dollar
According to U.S. Department of Labor figures for full–time, year–round workers, women’s earnings in 2011 were on average 81% of men’s, up only 1% from the previous year. The gain was mainly attributed to a decline in men’s earnings in the recession, not an increase in women’s pay.
Median earnings for women of color continue to be lower than the average for all women, which of course includes white women, who earn 85% of men’s wages overall. Asian American women also make 85%. African American women come in at 72% of men’s earnings, and for Latinas the percentage is 63%.
Native American women are at the bottom with only 59 cents.253
Every year, $200 billion lost to wage gap
• Nationwide, working families lose $200 billion in income annually due to the wage gap between men and women. That translates to between $700,000 and $2 million for individual women over the course of their work lives.
• If married women were paid the same as men in comparable jobs, their family incomes would rise by nearly 6 percent, and their families’ poverty rates would be cut by almost 40%.
• If single women earned as much as men in comparable jobs, their individual incomes would rise by 13.4 percent and their poverty rates would be reduced from 6.3 percent to 1 percent.
• Men in traditionally female fields, such as child care, nursing, and teaching, make more than the women in these jobs.
• Women in non–traditional jobs, like the building trades that historically pay more, still get shortchanged an average of $3,446 per year.
• The median annual earnings for women with professional degrees are $65,912; men earn $90,000.
• Lower earnings means lower private pensions. Women with income from a pension or annuity receive less than $6,500 per year, compared with $12,000 per year for men.
• Elderly women get over 22% less in Social Security benefits than men, largely due to lower lifetime earnings.
And there’s more
But even these miserable numbers don’t tell the whole story. The pay gap gets worse for women over their work lives, including for college graduates in high paying fields. For example, women one year out of college make 80% of men’s earnings. By the time college–educated women have worked ten years, the gap has increased, with full time women workers making only 69%.
The pay gap also widens greatly for women who drop out of the work force, even temporarily. According to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a woman who takes off for a single year will likely never catch up. She will earn less for up to 15 years after she returns to the workforce.
Closing the Gap
Court battles around pay discrimination at all levels have been ongoing since 1963, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s most recent pay equity decisions – in 2007 and 2010 – demonstrated a bias in favor of corporations against women.
In a truly bizarre ruling (Ledbetter v. Goodyear), the Court said that a woman who believes she is being denied equal pay must file a complaint within 180 days after the first instance of discrimination occurs, even if it went on for years before she found out about it.
Lilly Ledbetter’s fight
Prior to that ruling, the law had been interpreted to mean women had 180 days to bring action from the time they learned about the discrimination (e.g. they had been paid less than men doing the same work for years but didn’t know it). The following letter excerpt from the plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter, says it all:
I’m a former employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. For close to two decades, I was paid less than my male coworkers – even though I was doing the same work they were, and doing it well. The company kept the discrimination quiet and I didn’t know about the pay gap until I got an anonymous note about it. Seeking to rectify this injustice, I brought Goodyear to court.
A jury found that Goodyear had discriminated and awarded me more than $3 million in damages. But Goodyear appealed my case all the way to the Supreme Court and got a reversal of the jury verdict by one vote. The Court said I should have filed my complaint within six months of the original act of discrimination — even though at the time I didn’t know the discrimination was happening, let alone have enough evidence to complain.
My case set a new and dangerous precedent. According to the Court, if pay discrimination isn’t challenged within six months, a company can pay a woman less than a man for the rest of the woman’s career. I wonder what other forms of discrimination the Supreme Court will permit in the future.
The Ledbetter case galvanized organized women’s groups and members of Congress to try and overcome the ruling. The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, restoring the original intent of law as it had been interpreted for nearly 43 years, passed in 2009. Far from an easy or quick fix, this was only possible after to two years of advocacy and lobbying, an increase in the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, and a new president who supported its passage. While the statute will help women who learn they are being discriminated against in bringing legal action, it will do nothing to prevent wage discrimination in the first place – it just gets us back to where we were over 40 years ago.
In another landmark decision in 2010, the Roberts Supreme Court ruled in Dukes v. Walmart that although women in the company may have been denied pay and promotions because of their gender, they could not sue as a class. The Court ruled that giving discretion to individual store managers, which can result in discrimination, did not constitute a company–wide discrimination policy (even though discrimination was the clear outcome of such a policy). Only the company–wide written anti–discrimination policy counted. It further ruled that the claims were not sufficiently similar to qualify as a class, since they came from different parts of the country and different stores. The decision has already had wide–ranging consequences, with many class action suits being thrown out by lower courts, citing Dukes.
Inability to sue as a class severely limits women’s options for redress from workplace discrimination. Each woman must go it alone or with only a small group of co–workers, hiring a lawyer for many thousands of dollars (class action lawyers sometimes work pro bono, but lawyers handling small suits do not). Low–wage female workers cannot afford this, and without the protection of a group, individuals are much more likely to experience retaliation for complaining in the first place.
Photo courtesy of the author