Speaking of Women's Rights: Are We There Yet?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Are We There Yet?

Do you remember sitting in the back seat and asking that question?  Are you now the one in the driver’s seat, with kids asking you the same question?

Some things never change.  But unlike antsy children, there are some things that really need to change – such as the wage gap.

Today, Equal Pay Day, provides an annual reminder of the wage gap; women work until this day in 2014 to be paid what men were paid for their work in 2013.  Nationally, women working full-time are paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to men, and in Washington State, 78 cents per dollar.

Even worse, the wage gaps for women of color are even greater. African-American women are paid just 64 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men – and Hispanic women, only 54 cents.  This means that for African-American women, Equal Pay Day comes in July.  For Hispanic women, it isn’t Equal Pay Day until November.

The wage gap has barely moved in the past decade.  At this rate, the wage gap will take 45 years to close.

I received a message recently saying the following: “We COULD earn higher salaries at the drop of a hat. But we decline to do that. It's our free, voluntary and very intelligent choice to NOT earn higher incomes.… When you find a man and a woman doing equal work for unequal pay, report it to the EEOC; that's what it's for. Other than that, don't imply that we are incapable of making decisions for ourselves.”

To these women, I say “more power to you.”  But many – indeed, most – women do not have those same choices. Women are disproportionately represented in low-wage sectors of the workforce – where, not coincidentally, workers are less likely to have access to paid sick leave or family or medical leave.

Further, one of the reasons workers don’t simply file discrimination claims is that workers often don’t know what their counterparts are paid.  Lilly Ledbetter, for example, who took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, did not know she was paid less than three male managers until she received an anonymous note revealing their salaries. Many companies explicitly forbid workers from discussing pay and/or retaliate against them for doing so.

No one can eliminate the wage gap with a whisk of a magic wand, any more easily than your mom could invoke time travel to get to your travel destination sooner.  But today, we got a little closer when President Obama took two executive actions: first, he signed an Executive Order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss compensation, and second, he directed the Department of Labor to require federal contractors to report compensation data by sex and race.

Both of these policies are geared toward empowering workers by increasing wage transparency so workers can take action if there are pay discrepancies.  Congress is considering the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would strengthen the Equal Pay Act and extend similar measures as the new Executive Order to eliminate pay secrecy for all workers.

So today, the answer is “No, we’re not there yet.”  But in the meantime, we’ll keep speaking up about these issues. And we hope you will, too.

Janet Chung is Legal & Legislative Counsel at Legal Voice, where she works on economic justice and reproductive health issues.  She loves taking road trips and has never asked, “Are we there yet?”

Photo by Emlyn Stokes