Happy (Un)equal Pay Day

In the current economic downturn, with more women than ever serving as breadwinners, pay equality is absolutely a family issue.
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It's Equal Pay Day again. On April 20, women's earnings finally catch up to men's earnings from the previous calendar year. Unfortunately, we have to work four extra months to get there.

A woman still earns, on average, just 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. But pay equity isn't just a woman's issue. In the current economic downturn, with more women than ever serving as breadwinners, this is absolutely a family issue.

The statistics are disturbing. Over the course of her working life, gender-based pay disparity costs the average woman and her family more than $200,000, even more for women with professional degrees. At the lower end of the pay scale, wage inequality for women translates into higher rates of family poverty, poorer health and nutrition, and fewer educational opportunities for the next generation.

What does that mean in real terms? AAUW has collaborated with the National Partnership for Women & Families to provide some insight. For example, we found that in the nation's most populous state, California, a typical woman working full time is paid $40,521 per year, while a typical man in the same job would earn $47,758, creating an annual wage gap of $7,237.

Without this wage gap, California's working women and their families could pay for a full year's worth of groceries, three extra months of mortgage and utilities payments, or more than 2,000 additional gallons of gas!

So why does this problem persist? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

In part, the wage gap persists simply because women are still paid less than men for doing the same work. Women also don't move up the promotional ladder as quickly as men, even when our performance is superior.

There's another stumbling block. Simply put, how much money you make depends in large part on what you do for a living. According to a major new AAUW research report entitled "Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics", far fewer women than men are found in these higher-paying careers. With the single exception of the biological sciences, women today make up less than a third of the STEM workforce. For engineers, the figure is just 11 percent.

All of us -- parents, educators, and employers - have a role to play in breaking through the barriers. A large body of evidence shows that encouraging girls' achievement in science and math, creating college environments that support women in these fields, and counteracting our own implicit and explicit biases can increase our daughters' participation in these desirable high-wage careers.

Nonetheless, history clearly shows that when it comes to civil rights, only the government can enforce the rules and ensure a level playing field ... for all Americans.

Fortunately, when it comes to pay equity, today we have one of the best chances in years for meaningful change at the federal level. Part of that job has already been accomplished. Last year Congress passed --and President Obama signed into law -- the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored a worker's right to challenge wage discrimination in the federal courts.

The companion Paycheck Fairness Act - a sorely needed overhaul of our outdated wage discrimination laws -- has passed in the House of Representatives but still needs a vote in the U.S. Senate.

The Paycheck Fairness Act is a thorough update to the original Equal Pay Act signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The new law would close loopholes, strengthen incentives to prevent pay discrimination, and bring the Equal Pay Act in line with our other civil rights laws. It would also prohibit retaliation against workers who inquire about employers' wage practices --something Lilly Ledbetter could have used in her own case.

President Obama co-sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act when he was a senator and is ready to sign it into law. But if it doesn't pass the Senate this year, we're back to square one. We must convince the U.S. Senate to bring this bill up for a vote and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act now.

Please ask your senators to cosponsor and vote for the Paycheck Fairness Act--and let them know that Equal Pay Day is one observance you'd be glad to take off your calendar forever.

Find out how the wage gap affects families in your state and where your state falls on AAUW's new state-by-state ranking of the pay gap.

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