Sunday was the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 into law. The landmark law was the first that required equal pay for equal work for women.
In the early 20th century, women were about 25% of the workforce. Women workers were paid far less than men in those cases where women were allowed to do jobs that men did. Some states limited the hours that women could work, some going as far as to ban women from working at night.
When women started moving into the workforce in larger numbers during World War II, activists stepped up their efforts to increase pay for women workers, leading to the National War Labor Board endorsing equal pay for women who were replacing male workers who were at war. In 1945, Congress introduced the Women's Equal Pay Act, but it failed to pass, despite valiant efforts from advocates to win support.
By 1960, some progress had been made, but women were still paid less than two-thirds for the same work. During President John F. Kennedy's administration, things started to fall into place. Esther Peterson, who ran the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor, endorsed legislation to close the pay gap, as did former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Pro-corporate forces fought the passage of the law, but it finally prevailed in 1963.
Since then, the gap has shrunken further, but we still have a long way to go. The latest research shows that the median woman worker today is paid 80% of what men get for the same work. While it varies, the gap persists across the wage distribution and at all education levels. Women who have a college degree or higher are only paid 73% of what men make. The problems are exacerbated for women of color, with black and Hispanic women getting paid 66% and 60%, respectively, of what men get.
We have a lot of tools to help close the gap more, even in a time when Congress and the White House are uninterested in solving the problem:
- Increase union membership, since women in unions get paid 94% of what men in unions make. In addition to more equal pay, being a union member offers better benefits, helps create safer work environments and helps maintain life-work balance.
- Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. This bipartisan legislation would close loopholes in existing law, break harmful patterns of pay discrimination and strengthen protections for women workers.
- Require more transparency in compensation data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
- Strongly enforce anti-discrimination laws, including requiring that employers prove that hiring, pay and promotion are based on factors other than sex or gender.
- Allow workers to earn additional benefits such as paid sick leave and paid family leave and add policies such as fair and flexible scheduling, which help enable workers to balance demands at home and at work.
- Since both wages disproportionately affect women, raise the minimum wage and eliminate the tipped minimum wage.
- Provide accessible, affordable, high-quality child care and early childhood education.
These are just some of the tools we could use. We will continue to close the wage gap to finish the job of the Equal Pay Act and the pioneers who helped pass it by pursuing laws and policies that ensure women are paid and treated equally.