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Sarah Crawford, Director of Workplace Fairness

From the desk of ... Sarah Crawford

Wage Discrimination and the Fight for Fair Pay

April 12, 2011 | Workplace Fairness

In a few months, the Supreme Court will decide if the women in the landmark Dukes v. Wal-Mart wage discrimination case will get their day in court to challenge unfair pay and promotions. Today, on Equal Pay Day, Senator Barbara Mikulski and Representative Rosa DeLauro will re-introduce the Paycheck Fairness Act - legislation that would establish workplace supports to help advance fair, discrimination-free workplaces. Both are big news in the fight for fair pay this year, and both represent critical ways to combat the wage discrimination that continues to hurt America's women and their families.

Currently, a full-time working woman in the United States is paid, on average, $10,622 less than a full-time working man. For African American and Latino women, the gap is even worse, $18,514 and $23,806 respectively. Those who doubt the wage gap and its relevance argue that differing experiences, priorities and choices are the true culprit but, according to a 2003 study conducted by the Government Accountability Office, even after accounting for personal choices, a significant wage gap remains. The data and stories from women across the country prove that, sadly, wage discrimination persists in today's workplaces.

To effectively combat wage discrimination, working women need to be both aware that they are being paid unfairly, and capable of challenging their employers' actions. In the case of Dukes v. Wal-Mart, 1.6 million current and former female employees at Wal-Mart are attempting to do just that. The women have come together to challenge the widespread, systemic discrimination in pay and promotions they suffered at the hands of the nation's largest private employer. The company is arguing that the group is too big and too dissimilar to proceed with the case as a class. On March 29th, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether or not the case should continue. Its decision is expected in June.

In cases of wage discrimination in particular, often women don't know that they are being paid less than their male co-workers because many employers discourage employees from sharing salary information. If they do find out, many fear retaliation for reporting it or taking action. Other women don't have the resources to hire attorneys and follow through with their claims in court.

This situation allows unlawful wage discrimination to continue - and it's what makes Dukes v. Wal-Mart especially important. If women can't come together to challenge unequal treatment, countless instances of discrimination will go unaddressed.

The ability to combat wage discrimination once it has happened is critical but it would be better if we could prevent the discrimination in the first place. That is why strengthening wage discrimination laws and the enforcement of those already in place is essential. The Paycheck Fairness Act is a huge step in that direction. The bill would make it easier for employers, employees and government agencies to identify discriminatory pay policies, while also enhancing those agencies' ability to enforce wage discrimination laws. If passed, the Paycheck Fairness Act would help to prevent the wage discrimination that is taking a significant financial toll on working women and their families.

There is no one solution to the problem of unequal wages in this country. But protecting women's ability to challenge wage discrimination and helping to prevent it through greater transparency and improved enforcement would be a good start. Those simple steps could change the lives of generations of women.

In honor of Equal Pay Day and recent steps to advance fair pay, let's harness the energy around this issue and recommit to turning the vision of workplaces free from wage discrimination into reality.


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