AP Images/Susan Walsh
Fifty years ago today, in 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act. The idea was simple: Men and women doing the same work should earn the same pay. Straightforward enough, right? Change the law, change the world, be home by lunchtime.
Well, maybe not by lunchtime. After all, back then the law still accepted the idea that men and women were born for different jobs. Newspapers like The Washington Post still had separate classified ad sections for “men’s” jobs and “women’s” jobs. Female law school graduates had trouble even getting interviews. The pre-1963 world being what it was–sexist, in a word—you’d figure activists might well have estimated that the culture would need at least a decade to catch up and treat women fairly on the job.
“When I first came to the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, which is now the National Partnership for Women & Families (NPWF), in 1974, it was very fashionable to walk around with those big buttons that had “59¢” with the international “no” sign, the slash, through it,” Judith Lichtman of NPWF told me. “We all wore those buttons.” Women then were making the ridiculous 59 cents to a man’s dollar.
Fifty years later, women are still earning about 77 cents for a man’s dollar—and it’s been bouncing around at that level for about 15 years. There’s plenty of discussion around the attempts to take away women’s reproductive rights, and around the consequences of sexual assault. But I just don’t see the same outrage about that missing money—even though the daily consequences are just as damaging. How often does a woman need emergency contraception or an abortion? Maybe once or twice in her lifetime. How often does she get paid less than the guy down the hall doing the same damn entry-level job, or the same nonprofit, government, medical, legal, or managerial job? Every single day.
So where’s the outrage?
Let me back up and admit that, yes, things are much better for women now than in the 1960s. Doctor, lawyer, engineer, astronaut, pro-basketball player: We take it for granted that girls can do just about everything, and will probably outperform the men they go to college, law school, or medical school with—at least while they’re still in school. And yes, because of the Ledbetter Act, Lilly Ledbetter could sue if, today, she found out that for the past thirty years men with fewer credentials and less experience were being paid more than she was. [And yet we still have a gaping wage gap within nearly every occupation, right out of school.
Let’s look at some of the facts. The wage gap, of course, varies by all kinds of measures. Women in Wyoming make only 64.3 cents to a man’s dollar, while women in Washington, D.C. are paid up to 88 percent of what the men there make. (Single childless women do even better, but that only means that once women have children, they fare much worse—more on that below.) If we’re looking at race, you can guess how much worse it is for black women and Latina women compared to white men: 68 and 59 cents on the white male dollar respectively. But it also varies by occupation: female RNs make 95.7 cents to a male RN’s dollar; a female cook makes 89.4 cents to a male cook’s dollar; but female accountants and auditors make only 76.5 cents to the men in their profession’s dollar; and female truck drivers are bumping along with flat tires at 71.8 cents on the dollar.
The wage gap starts right away: One year out of college, men make more than women even when they have the same majors from comparable institutions, and went into the same occupations. Let me quote the American Association of University Women, or AAUW’s, 2012 study “Graduating to a Pay Gap:”
"Among teachers, for example, women earned 89 percent of what men earned. In business and management occupations, women earned 86 percent of what men earned; similarly, in sales occupations, women earned just 77 percent of what their male peers earned…."
And we all know that the starting gap is just like the alligator’s mouth: it widens over time. Start with a $3,000 difference, and by the end of your careers, you and he are living in completely different economic zip codes.
Former Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Murphy, for whom I wrote the book Getting Even: Why Women Still Don’t Get Paid Like Men—and What To Do So We Will, likes to ask women what they would do with that extra 23 cents. Eat more fresh vegetables and fruit? Pay off your student loans? Buy a new car? Send the kids to more expensive summer camps? Then she asks women to add that money up over a lifetime. Depending on your educational status, ladies, you will make $700,000 less than a man (that’s with a high school degree), $1 million less (college degree), or $2 million less (MBA, JD, MD).
The situation is much worse for mothers. If you give neutral reviewers the same job applications or job evaluations and you that a woman has children, she not only gets offered less money than anyone else (men with or without children, women without children), but also is allowed fewer absences and fewer tardy arrivals before she’s fired.
So how do we fix this? AAUW and NWPF want to see Congress pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would give more oomph to the 50-year-old law that’s showing its age, closing some loopholes and improving enforcement. Among other things, it would make it illegal to fire you for comparing pay with your coworkers, which ought to be a duh. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is trying to figure out an appropriate way for the government to collect pay data by sex, since the government is already collecting a lot of different kinds of employment data; the idea is that if companies saw their own gendered wage data, they could work on fixing any gaps—and if they didn’t fix those gaps, the EEOC could come in and investigate.
Here’s where I find the hope: Four out of ten American households with children now have women as the primary earners. That’s hopeful because it means the pay gap is a family issue. I regularly hear about men outraged when their wives, girlfriends, sisters, or daughters are fired for being pregnant (having to find another job sure does hold back your advancement) or are passed over for manager or get sexually harassed in the Air Force Academy or whatever face discrimination takes in their lives. I hear, over and over, that these good men won’t let their wives or friends or sisters just roll over and get walked on; they insist that women stand up and push harder on the family’s behalf.
Sometimes I wonder whether it’s easier for young feminists to argue about women’s bodies because it’s not sex but money that’s the real American taboo. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s that sexual freedom is a young person’s issue, immediate and consuming at that life stage. But you don’t quite notice how pinched your finances are compared to your male peers until you’re in your thirties or forties, and you look around and realize: Wait, I ran circles around him in college; how did he get there when I’m still back here?
That’s why I got such hope from the broad conversation that Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, launched. Sure, as some objected, her solutions are focused on women in business, but for God’s sake, let’s at least get the conversation started somewhere. Nothing can change if we’re not all talking about the subtle and overt ways women don’t get paid fairly. Equal pay is a family issue; it’s about children’s well-being. And that makes it a societal issue. So what if earlier feminists couldn’t get the wage gap fixed by lunchtime? That just means it’s our turn now.