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Half a Century Later, Mad Men's Peggy Olson Is Still Waiting for Paycheck Fairness

Payckeck Fairness
Payckeck Fairness
Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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March 26, 2015

Despite the popularity of the show “Mad Men,” we are no longer living in the 1960s, but the current gender wage gap doesn’t reflect that. Ongoing wage inequity should be a thing that’s in the past.

The persistent pay gap exists, despite the undeniable progress that women have made since the enactment of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a groundbreaking piece of anti-discrimination legislation that aimed at closing the pay gap for men and women performing the same work.

When President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, women earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Indeed, the bill helped women make significant strides towards equality in the workforce since its passage over 50 years ago.

As Peggy Olson in “Mad Men” noted: “I don’t know if you’ve read in the papers, but there’s a law now that says men and women who do the same thing will get paid the same.”

Unfortunately, in real life, over time loopholes and weak remedies have made this historic law less effective than Congress originally intended. So while we are no longer living in the 1960s, our pay is not keeping pace with the times.

Today, women who work full time still earn, on average, only 78 cents for every dollar men earn. The statistics are even worse for women of color: In 2013, African-American women only earned approximately 64 cents and Latinas only 56 cents for each dollar earned by a white man.

There is no doubt that updates to improve the effective of the Equal Pay Act’s protections are necessary. Fortunately, we have a number of champions for equal pay both in Congress and in the administration.

Yesterday, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), long-time leaders on equal pay, reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act. This bill would provide a much needed update to the Equal Pay Act by closing some of the loopholes that have made the law less effective over time. The Paycheck Fairness Act would provide stronger remedies for wage discrimination and require that employers who pay their male and female employees differently for doing the same work have a job-related, business necessity for doing so.

Importantly, the Paycheck Fairness Act would also prohibit retaliation against workers who inquire about or disclose their wages. More than 60 percent of private sector workers reported that their employer either prohibits or discourages employees from discussing their pay.

It’s almost impossible to do anything about wage discrimination if you cannot discuss the problem. In other words, Don Draper could fire Peggy Olson for trying to discuss her pay at Sterling Cooper. In 2015, that is still the case in the majority of workplaces.

President Obama has spoken directly to these problems. In his 2014 State of the Union, he likened the practices that still contribute to the ongoing gender pay gap as “Mad Men” era policies:

A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. . . . It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode. This year, let’s all come together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves.

The president followed up this speech and commitment to the issue later that year when he signed an executive order banning retaliation for wage disclosure among federal contractors. Unfortunately, the administration has not yet issued the final rule, although we hope it will be implemented soon. President Obama reiterated his commitment to this issue in this year’s State of the Union, once again, calling for equal pay for women.

It’s 2015 and women’s wages lag behind men, many of the tools to do anything about it are weak, and most workers still cannot talk about their pay without fear of retaliation.

It’s time for our elected officials and our salaries to catch up and make equal pay for equal work a reality. The Paycheck Fairness Act, currently pending in Congress, would provide a solution. Historically, pay equity has not been a partisan issue, and in fact, this bill has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past – a past we should return to.

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