Column: There’s More to Do to Advance Pay Equity
Nearly five years ago, newly elected President Obama committed to equal pay for women by signing the bill that bears my name, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. I joyfully joined the president for the occasion, my mind racing ahead to what this action would mean for American women everywhere.
The day that bill was signed into law marked the end of the hardest fight of my life. The bill directly addressed Ledbetter v. Goodyear, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that essentially said my employer had been paying me unfairly for long enough to make it legal. This law, the very first to receive Obama’s signature, changed that. It restored the long-standing interpretation of civil rights laws, allowing employees to challenge any and every discriminatory paycheck — rather than be hamstrung by short statutes of limitations, as I was in my Supreme Court case.
More broadly, the law renewed my faith in American values. It proved that America’s commitment to fairness and equality is more than rhetoric. The president’s support also showed that the movement for equal pay for equal work was making progress. Women of the United States now had a champion with the authority and drive to do something about it.
Since that bill was signed, the president has recommitted to equal pay on all the biggest stages, including in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses. It’s great to be reminded that he shares my values. Yet his pledge when he signed the bill — that it was just the first step toward closing the pay gap — has gone largely unrealized.
I urge the president and Congress to stop resting on their laurels. Yes, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a great accomplishment. But the president and Congress should not fall back on that victory every time they’re asked about pay equity — as if all the work has been done and equal pay for equal work has been achieved.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is just the first of many tools women need. My fight for equal pay was never supposed to end with me, and it was never meant to be partisan. Letting that be the case would be an additional injustice. A 2012 study by the American Association of University Women controlled for factors known to affect earnings, such as education, parenthood and hours worked, and found that college-educated women still earn 7 percent less than their male peers just one year out of school — even when they have the same major and occupation. That’s not a small amount, and it gets worse over time, as most benefits and raises are based on wages. These pay disparities harm women, their families and the nation’s economy. According to a recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the U.S. economy would produce an additional $447.6 billion in income if women received equal pay.
Members of Congress who truly believe in fairness and equality are already standing with me in efforts to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. The bill, which has 207 co-sponsors in the House and 50 in the Senate, would help create stronger incentives for employers to pay workers fairly, empower women to negotiate for equal pay and prohibit retaliation against employees who share salary information. This isn’t rocket science, yet some members of Congress still claim that they support these values while not supporting them in legislation.
Congressional gridlock has led to sequestration and the government shutdown. That’s why Congress isn’t — and cannot be — our only avenue for this rallying cry. We need a powerful friend to help us advance equal pay now.
The president is that friend. He persuasively talks the talk. At the 2009 Ledbetter bill-signing ceremony and in strengthening federal civil rights enforcement, Obama has walked the walk. He is someone we can count on to speak out for women and families.
“But as congressional progress on the issue of equal pay has stalled, we need the president to take every action possible,” said Linda D. Hallman, executive director and chief executive of AAUW. “Just because Congress is stuck doesn’t mean American women have to be.”
As AAUW has recommended, the president could start by issuing an executive order that would ban federal contractors from retaliating against workers who ask about wage practices or share salary information. This is a critical element of the stalled Paycheck Fairness Act. And the president doesn’t need to wait for Congress; he has the power to put it in place with another history-making stroke of his pen. Even better, this action would help dismantle what was my largest barrier all those years ago — not knowing that I was being paid unfairly and having no way to find out.
Few women have that information, and some don’t feel safe asking questions for fear of retaliation from their bosses. I was told I’d be fired if I shared salary information at work. This executive order would empower employees to discuss salaries, a kind of openness that often leads to a smaller gender pay gap.
Companies given government contracts should not be able to discriminate with taxpayer dollars. Although the Paycheck Fairness Act is still needed to help all workers, the president’s executive order would affect roughly 26 million workers, or 22 percent of the nation’s workforce.
Such an executive order would not only be critical to advancing pay equity but would be good business as well. And when our government acts, the private sector often follows.
What a difference the president could make once again.
Lilly Ledbetter was the plaintiff in the discrimination case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and the namesake for the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law.