The recent March for Women's Lives was by any measure a success in putting forward a comprehensive and progressive vision for the advancement of women's lives. One part of that vision that deserves greater attention on this Mother's Day is the fight for economic equality.
Equal pay is an issue at the core of economic inequality for working women and their families across the nation. Since the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, the promise of equal pay has been the law of the land. The Equal Pay Act made it illegal for employers to pay women a lower wage than men for the same job based on their gender. In fact, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1974 ruling in Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, which affirmed the illegality of a wage differential based on gender.
Still, 41 years later, the promise of equal pay has not been fully realized and a persistent wage gap continues to exist between women and men. While the gap has narrowed since 1963, when women earned 59 percent of men's wages and this narrowing reflects the significant advancements women have made in the workplace, the most recent data indicates that women earned just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2002.
The wage gap affects working women at every income level in the workforce. Whether in the professional ranks or the aisles of your local Wal-Mart, the wage gap knows no racial, ethnic or geographic boundaries.
The wage gap expands to become a mommy gap for working mothers who are further penalized for their time out of the workforce to have children and their desire for more flexible hours. It is estimated that a first child lowers earnings for a mother by 7.5 percent, while a second child lowers her earnings by another 8 percent.
For working women and their families, the wage gap amounts to $200 billion annually in lost income. For the average 25-year old working woman, the wage gap will amount to $523,000 in lost wages during her lifetime. To put that number into perspective, the average lifetime benefit for getting a college education is $1,000,000 in additional earnings. And beyond our working lives, the income lost from the wage gap results in greater retirement insecurity for women through smaller pensions.
While the wage gap affects all working women and their families, it more significantly narrows the economic opportunities available to women of color. African-American women earn just 68 cents of every dollar earned by men, and Latinas fair even worse by earning just 56 cents. Because higher percentages of African-American women and Latinas lead single-parent families (49.7 percent of African-American families and 21 percent of Hispanic families compared to 15.5 percent of white families), the wage gap is one of several factors contributing to the higher rates of poverty among women of color and their families.
Instead of moving forward on the constructive path of enforcing and strengthening the Equal Pay Act, the Bush administration has taken affirmative steps to deter enforcement. The Department of Labor has effectively ended the Equal Pay Matters Initiative, a Clinton-era effort designed to provide working women with the information and resources needed to compete with men in the workplace. The Labor Department Web site has been wiped clean of any reference to the wage gap, as if it never existed. And the Bush administration continues to push potentially crippling reform of the overtime pay system that could cost working women millions of dollars in lost wages.
The most obvious solution to closing the wage gap is strengthening enforcement of the Equal Pay Act. One such legislative effort, the Paycheck Fairness Act, seeks to do so by closing loopholes in the existing law that weaken its effectiveness as a tool for ending sex discrimination in wages. The Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen the remedies provision of the act in three important ways: it will allow prevailing plaintiffs to recover compensatory and punitive damages; make it easier to bring class-action lawsuits on behalf of groups of women; and improve the collection of wage data by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, thereby enhancing the agency's ability to determine whether violations of the law are taking place.
In addition to the Paycheck Fairness Act, there are other important policy proposals that address the problem of lower wages in occupations dominated by women. One policy that deserves attention would allow lawsuits to be filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when women are paid less than men in comparable jobs.
Another effective tool for closing the wage gap is to expand unionization of the workforce. Working women who have union representation earn 33 percent more than women who are not union members. Proposals such as the Employee Right To Choose Act would protect the rights of workers to organize and further the cause of equal pay.
As we celebrate Mother's Day and take the next steps towards advancing the agenda of the March for Women's Lives, we owe our working mothers, and all women, a renewed focus on achieving economic equality. Equal pay would be the perfect present for this Mother's Day and those to come.
Cassandra Q. Butts is the senior vice president and coordinator for economic policy at the Center for American Progress.