This Equal Pay Day, End Pay Secrecy

Fifty years ago this year, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which aimed to confront the "serious and endemic" problem of unequal wages in America. At a time when women were one-third of the American workforce, President John F. Kennedy said the Act would help to end "the unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job."

A half century later, that unconscionable practice unfortunately persists. Today, women make up half the nation's workforce, and yet are still being paid only 77 cents on the dollar as compared to men. That is why we recognize today as Equal Pay Day, the day in 2013 when a woman's earnings for 2012 catch up to what a man made last year. Clearly, more steps need to be taken to ensure that women are paid what they deserve for the same day's work. One common-sense and easy-to-implement reform that could make a difference right away would be to end pay secrecy in the workplace.

A survey conducted by the Institute for Women's Policy Research in 2011 found that about half of employees -- and 61% of employees in the private sector - said they worked in a setting where discussions of wages and salaries are either formally prohibited or discouraged by managers. Workers who violate formal pay secrecy policies or ignore their managers' informal admonitions face potential retaliation, including the prospect of being fired, demoted, or passed over for raises and promotions.

In short, pay secrecy policies keep unequal pay hidden from employees and enable pay discrimination to continue. We know this from the story of Lilly Ledbetter - who learned about her decades of unequal pay at Goodyear only via an anonymous note. We also know this from Terri Kelly, a pharmaceutical sales representative in Nashville, Tennessee, who uncovered her unequal pay from her husband, who had the exact same job and experience, but was paid thousands of dollars more. Lilly and Terri's stories are happening right now to thousands of other women, all over America.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, which we have introduced in Congress to give real teeth to the Equal Pay Act, addresses the lack of accountability that allows companies to get away with underpaying women like Terri and Lilly. Among other things, it would ban retaliation against workers who discuss their wages and close the door on pay secrecy for good. The Paycheck Fairness Act has passed the House twice now. We hope this year both parties will come together and make Paycheck Fairness the law of the land.

We are very encouraged that President Obama has made fair pay a priority for his administration, and even made it a piece of his State of the Union speech just two months ago. While Congress waits, we urge him to take action at his disposal to ban federal contractors from employing pay secrecy practices. A half-century after the Equal Pay Act, it is time for us all to fulfill its goals. It is time to end unequal pay and make the dubious milestone of Equal Pay Day a thing of the past.