Close Wage Gap That Hurts Women and Undercuts Principle of Equality

Sunday 20 July 2008

by: Representative Louise Slaughter, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Representative Louise Slaughter during a May 2007 news conference.

As we celebrate the 160th anniversary of the 1848 Women's Rights Convention, we must remember that we are still struggling to achieve equality. Among the most distressing disparities between men and women is the significant pay gap for the same work.

Forty-five years ago, President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act to address the unconscionable practice of paying women less than men for the same job. At that time, women earned 59 cents for each dollar earned by a man. While the wage gap has narrowed, today's working women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men - an estimated loss of $200,000 to $2 million over a lifetime. In fact, men are paid more in more than 300 job classifications. Even in industries in which women comprise 70 percent of the labor force, men make 20 percent more than their female co-workers. This wage gap is not just a problem for women but families as well. Women often provide a significant share of their family income, and in many cases are the sole wage-earner. Indeed, 72 percent of women with children work for pay. Even in dual-income households, a woman's income is vital to finance necessities.

Despite these staggering statistics, the Supreme Court dealt working women a blow last year when it decided Ledbetter v. Goodyear. In that case, Lilly Ledbetter, a former Goodyear Tire employee, sued the company after discovering that she had been paid significantly less than male employees doing the same job during her nearly 20 years of employment. The Supreme Court decided against Ledbetter. Under the ruling, in order to enforce her right to be paid fairly, she would have had to have filed a wage-discrimination complaint within 180 days of when the discrimination began.

Justice Ruth Ginsberg, the only woman on the court, in her dissenting opinion, wisely noted that the Ledbetter decision essentially gutted legislative protections against discriminatory pay practices. Since pay practices typically take place in secret, it would be almost impossible for a woman to discover discrimination within 180 days. In its Ledbetter holding, the Supreme Court all but endorsed gender discrimination in employment by robbing women of a legal remedy to enforce equality. Last Thursday, I joined Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Ledbetter and many other Congress members at a rally in Washington, D.C., to support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act. This critical legislation will rectify the Supreme Court's decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear and build on the Equal Pay Act to help end the persistent wage gap between men and women.

While we struggle for gender equality in the workplace, women nationwide are breaking glass ceilings each day. Pelosi is the first woman to lead the House of Representatives; Clinton was the first woman to run a formidable presidential campaign. I'll never forget how proud I was when Anne Mulcahy, Xerox CEO, and Ursula Burns, Xerox president, graced the front page of Fortune magazine for their huge successes at Xerox. However, while these remarkable women have been recognized for their talents and contributions, how many other extraordinary women have not?

Women workers are not looking for a favor, they are looking for fairness. The principles of equality and justice demand that women receive equal pay for equal work. Despite the obstacles, we must redouble our efforts to insist that hardworking women across America are compensated fairly. Until women receive equal pay for equal work, we will never reach the gender equality that women and men at the 1848 Women's Rights Convention aspired to achieve.