It's time for equal pay

It's time for equal pay

Lilly Ledbetter and Barack Obama (Photo: Bloomberg News)

By Kelly Morrison, Political Columnist

It was a historic day for newly elected President Barack Obama, Jan. 29, 2009, when he put pen to paper and signed his first bill into law. It was also a momentous occasion for Lilly Ledbetter, who stood by the president's side as he approved her namesake legislation, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. The act allows employees to claim compensation for discriminatory pay practices retroactively, a crucial protection for employees like Ledbetter who face discrimination without their knowledge.

The act was also a milestone in the ongoing fight for pay equality, which continues to this day. Though many Americans may not have realized, Tuesday marked the 30th annual celebration of Equal Pay Day. This national holiday of sorts was established by the National Committee on Pay Equity to raise awareness about the ongoing income inequality between men and women. Though the Equal Pay Act of 1963 made equal enumeration the law of the land, American women still face discrimination when it comes to income.

This ongoing discrimination is what makes Equal Pay Day more of a grim reminder than of celebration. The date of observance for Equal Pay Day 'April 12 ' marks the time that a woman would have to work in 2016 in order to match what a male counterpart earned in 2015. On average, women make 79 cents to every dollar that a man makes, meaning that a woman must work 15.5 months to match what a man earns in 12. Contrary to popular belief, this figure is not skewed by the fact that women stay out of the workplace, but in fact represents the average difference between full-time, year-round workers over the age of 16.

Why is pay inequality still such a problem? Education is not a factor, since American women have been better educated than men for the last three decades. Occupational gender segregation ' the fact that women are overrepresented in lower-paying jobs and underrepresented at the highest levels ' does play a role. The experience gap, which results when women take time off to support their families, also explains about 10.5 percent of variation in salary. Still, these and other quantifiable factors only account for 60 to 80 percent of the variation in salaries, meaning that up to 40 percent of the pay gap likely stems from stereotypes against women and outright discrimination.

At times these stereotypes are subtle. For instance, women are less likely to negotiate salary improvements and benefits and less likely to self-promote out of fear that they will be labeled as aggressive, pushy or bossy. Men do not face these same penalties for confidence. Women are also more likely to be penalized in the office when they invest in their families. The sanctions for motherhood extend beyond the experience gap: the motherhood penalty means that women are perceived to be less competent and less hirable after they have children. Men, in contrast, are rewarded at work when they have children. These factors demonstrate that discrimination may not be blatant or intentional, but rather entrenched in the societal gender roles we prescribe for men and women.

So, while there wasn't much to celebrate on this year's Equal Pay Day, we can use the occasion to think about ways to challenge enduring injustice. The first step may be to undermine stereotypes by encouraging women to pursue careers in all sectors and to teach women to value their work by negotiating a fair salary. Campaigns such as HeforShe have also made progress by bringing men into the conversation about subtle forms of inequality.

Legislative change is also a necessity, and readers can contact their representatives to encourage support of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Hopefully with these efforts we can one day celebrate Equal Pay Day when a female's labor will be worth the same as a man's.

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