It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation to become law during his presidency. Back in 2009, we celebrated the law’s potential for turning the rallying cry of “equal pay for equal work” into a reality.
But sadly – as President Obama’s announcement today to hold companies accountable for paying women and people of color less makes evident – the momentum created by Ledbetter’s namesake legislation hasn’t moved the equal pay needle all that much.
Who was Lilly Ledbetter? In 2007, the Supreme Court threw out a jury’s verdict that she suffered pay discrimination during her nearly 20 years as one of the only female managers at an Alabama Goodyear Tire plant. In a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the court found that Ledbetter waited too long to sue, even though she didn’t know about the disparity between her pay and that of her male peers until she was close to retirement.
The public outcry was immediate. Regardless of whether their collars are white, pink, or blue, working Americans know the reality of how pay discrimination happens. Paychecks are taboo topics. Trying to find out whether you’re paid less than the person sitting next to you isn’t easy — and in some workplaces, it can even get you fired.
But even though Congress acted quickly to fix the court’s mistake, little has changed for working women. Women still make on average just 79 cents for every dollar men do — with African American women earning only 60 cents and Latinas just 55 cents.
There are many reasons for the gender wage gap. These include women being paid less than men for the same or comparable jobs, job segregation in which women are concentrated in the lowest-paying fields, and pay reductions due to pregnancy and caregiving responsibilities. A major impediment to women gaining equal pay is companies’ lack of transparency in their salary scales and retaliation against employees who discuss their salary.
Obama has done what he can with executive orders. In July 2014, he made it illegal for federal contractors to retaliate against workers for discussing their pay, and he required those employers to regularly report to the Department of Labor its compensation figures, broken down by gender and race.
And some members of Congress have continued to fight on, introducing the Paycheck Fairness Act every year since 2007. This federal bill would strengthen current law to make it possible for workers to know where they stand in comparison to their colleagues by prohibiting retaliation against workers who discuss their salaries, while making it easier to prove discrimination — even if they have different job titles. For example, a “housekeeper” wouldn’t make less than a “janitor” for doing comparable work.
And several states are stepping into the breach as well, enacting stronger wage protections for women than those available under federal law. Indeed, legislators in approximately 24 states this week introduced bills to close the gender wage gap. Advocates in several of those states are now working together as part of the Equal Pay Today Campaign, to coordinate state-by-state advocacy and build momentum towards gaining equal pay throughout the country.
Read the Equal Pay Today! Campaign Platform, here.
We must continue working to pass these state laws, but women’s economic security should not depend on where they live. We cannot continue with this patchwork approach to women’s — and their families’ — well-being. Ultimately, we need a federal solution that will ensure women’s equal pay and finally close the gender wage gap.