Why Women Need the Paycheck Fairness Act

While equal pay advocates have introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act many times over the past few decades, Congress has failed to pass it. But now, the legislation may have a chance.

Why Women Need the Paycheck Fairness Act
(Sarah Mirk / Flickr)

Championed by members of the Democratic Women’s Caucus (DWC), including Reps. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R 7/S. 205)—currently before Congress and up for a vote next month—aims to help secure equal pay for all Americans and end the stark gender wage gap. On Thursday, the legislation passed through the House of Representatives by a vote of 217-210, almost completely among party lines.

“Nothing would improve the lives of women more than closing the gender wage gap. This is especially true for women who live at the intersection of race and gender as do I, as do many of you,” said Joi Chaney, equal rights advocate, domestic legal policy expert, and founder of J.O.I Strategies during a press event with the Congress members late last month.  

For every dollar a man earns, women earn just 82 cents according to data from the 2019 U.S. Census on median wages for full-time, year-round workers. For women of color, the wage gap is much wider than 82 cents—with Black women earning a meager 62 cents to the dollar, Latinx women earning 54 cents to the dollar, and Native American women earning just 57 cents to the dollar. (In reality, the overall gender wage gap is actually much larger when fringe benefits, salaries and self-employment income are included in a more comprehensive calculation of the “earnings gap,” concluding women earn 57 percent of what men earn, according to a study by Stanford University.)

“Compounded over a lifetime, the pay gap becomes a wealth tax, costing women thousands and thousands of dollars lost in wages,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), House sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment and chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, on the House floor Thursday in support of the Paycheck Fairness Act. “Longstanding workplace discrimination sets women back in pay and benefits, hiring and promotions. Closing the pay gap will provide more financial stability for women—especially those who are hardest hit by the pandemic.”

The Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to men and women who perform equal work. The Paycheck Fairness Act would:

  • prohibit retaliation against workers who inquire about wage practices or disclose their own wages;
  • protect employees who discuss salaries with fellow colleagues;
  • require employers who pay men and women differently to demonstrate that the wage differentials are based on factors other than gender;
  • direct the Department of Labor to assist employers to collect wage-related data; and
  • create additional training for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to identify and handle wage disputes.

In addition, the Paycheck Fairness Act would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963, strengthening the penalties for violating the Act, expanding options for class action lawsuits, and providing plaintiffs who file sex-based wage discriminations under the Equal Pay act with similar remedies that are avaible to those filing race or ethicnicy based wage discrimination claims under the Civil Rights Act. 

While equal pay advocates have introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act many times over the past few decades, Congress has failed to pass it. But with new hope on the horizon due to the Biden administration’s White House Gender Policy Council’s commitment to supporting pay equity, the Paycheck Fairness Act may have a chance. The ACLU, National Women’s Law Center, AAUW and a large number of women’s organizations are supporting the Paycheck Fairness Act. 

“Republicans know, study after study, a huge percentage of [the gender wage gap] is not [explained] by the field that you go into. It’s not [explained]  by having children. So we have to stop letting them get away with any of those excuses,” said Patricia Arquette, actor and women’s rights advocate. “Women are paid less for the same work in the majority of businesses. It costs women $956 billion dollars a year in lost wages. … There’s a reason women are more likely to be in poverty when they’re elderly and this is one of those reasons, because they are being short changed their whole life long.” 

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At current rates, the wage gap has a hugely negative impact on women’s economic health, especially over time. Over a 40 year career, a woman will earn $407,760 less than a man—women of color and disabled women earn far less. Collectively, over 55 million full-time women earned $545.7 billion less than their male counterparts in 2019 alone. By facilitating class action suits, closing employer loopholes, and creating pay transparency, the Paycheck Fairness Act provides women with the pay protections they deserve. 

“Behind the numbers are families struggling to make ends meet deprived on average of 10 thousand annually that could go towards food, education, housing, and retirement savings,” said Jackie Speier,  U.S. Representative for California’s 14th congressional district. 

According to a survey conducted by Glassdoor, women negotiate far less than men, with 68 percent of women accepting the initial salary offered and not negotiating, compared to only 52 percent of men. Even when women negotiate, they are often punished for trying and still receive less than men. By not negotiating, women lose out on between $1 and $1.5 million throughout a lifetime. Lack of ability to discuss wages with colleagues, blocks women from negotiating and knowing if they are being paid fairly, yet the Paycheck Fairness Act would provide protections and resources to end this drastic pay disparity. 

“When we are talking about equity and civil rights, it’s so important to recognize that our gender is not only the ones pulling Americans out of this crisis, but our worth and our value needs to be recognized with the paycheck,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino. 

Allowing employees to discuss their wages without fear or retaliation minimizes different treatment between genders. Discussing with colleagues about pay transparency without fear of retaliation can ultimately change women’s earnings and put pressure on companies to not underpay women.

“The gross gap in pay equity exists everywhere for women,” said Mona Sinha, chair of the ERA Fund for Women’s Equality. “This happens in every sector from Wall Street to Main Street. And you know, I was always taught as a young girl that compensation is a measure of my worth , and by differentiating it, women are getting the message that they are less worthy than their male counterparts and that just does not hold true.” 

In the past 25 years, the gender pay gap has only narrowed by 8 cents, which is why legislation such as the Paycheck Fairness Act is essential to providing economic equality for women. 

“I can never shake the quote from Gloria [Steinem] that women can’t be equal outside of the home until men are equal inside it. But women can’t be equal in the workplace until we are paid equally for equal work,” said Wendy Chun-Hoon, D.C. director for Family Values @ Work. 

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Isabel Fields is an undergraduate student at Smith College studying both Women and Gender Studies and Economics.