National Partnership for Women & Families

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From the desk of ... Debra L. Ness

The Equal Pay Act Turns 50: The Times They’ve Been a-Changin’

1963 was a year of great change for our country. Martin Luther King, Jr., said the words “I Have A Dream,” President John F. Kennedy and civil rights activist Medgar Evers were assassinated, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique first hit bookstore shelves and the Equal Pay Act was signed into law. It was recently called “the year everything happened,” and it laid the groundwork for much of the progress we have seen since.

As Bob Dylan said in his now iconic song, which debuted as 1963 came to a close, “The times they were a-changin’.” And, in many ways, they did.

But despite the events and developments of 1963 and the tremendous progress we have seen since, at least one thing has remained frustratingly constant: the existence of a punishing gender-based wage gap, fueled by antiquated notions about women in the workplace and loopholes in existing law.

In 1963, when the Equal Pay Act was passed to promote equal pay for equal work, women made up one-third of the workforce and were paid just 59 cents for every dollar paid to men. Fifty years later, nearly half of workers are women, and women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children.

Yet women today are paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men, or more than $11,000 less each year. The wage gap for women of color is even worse: African American women and Latinas are paid just 64 and 55 cents, respectively, for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. And the gap exists in every corner of the country, regardless of geography, occupation, education or work patterns.

Women’s wages are essential to families’ financial security. But with the wage gap closing at a rate of less than half a cent per year, women’s wages will not soon catch up to men’s.

That is why the National Partnership for Women & Families has been working for years to advance measures that would help close the wage gap and ensure women are paid fairly, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act. It would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, help to break harmful patterns of pay discrimination and strengthen workplace protections for women.

We are also among the leaders of a coalition that is calling for action at the state and federal levels to address practices that contribute to the wage gap, including: pay discrimination, when women are paid and/or promoted less than their male counterparts; segregation of women into jobs that pay lower wages; retaliation against workers who discuss their pay; discrimination based on pregnancy or caregiver responsibilities; and wage theft, when employers do not pay workers for all of their time on the job, force them to work off the clock, or deny workers the overtime pay they deserve.

This 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act is a stark reminder that, five decades later, women and their families are still losing critical income to the gender-based wage gap. But fortunately, there is hope.

Things have changed in important and helpful ways since 1963: There are now more women than ever before in Congress. Challenges for women in the workplace are a part of the national dialogue like never before. And there are generations of women, young and old, who care about these issues — and who have innovative technologies to help spread the word and make sure women’s voices are heard.

1963 was a year of enormous change, but change needs to continue if we are to finally realize the promise of the Equal Pay Act and bring our workplace policies up to date. It is time to make the gender-based wage gap a thing of the past. Women and men, employers and lawmakers, should use this anniversary to commit to advancing the measures that will close the wage gap once and for all. That is the change today’s families need.


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