April 8 is Equal Pay Day, marking the number of days the average woman has to work into the new year to earn what a man in an equivalent job earned in the last calendar year alone. Normally it’s not a day to celebrate. Instead, it serves as a stark reminder that women in the United States still earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man receives.
That fact is morally and socially unacceptable. But it is also economically foolish: the World Economic Forum has said that if women’s pay equaled men’s, the U.S. GDP would grow by nine percent.
Yesterday President Obama signed two directives aimed at closing the wage gap. First, an Executive Order prohibits federal contractors from retaliating against employees for sharing their salary information with one another, making it easier for women to discover and address paycheck inequity. And the President also instructed the Department of Labor to create new regulations requiring federal contractors to report salary information to the government, exposing salary inequities and thereby encouraging contractors to close the wage gap voluntarily.
Both presidential actions mirror provisions of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill now pending before the Senate which Congress has twice considered and twice failed to pass. The measure would amend the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which made it unlawful for businesses to pay men and women different salaries for performing substantially the same work. The Act would give teeth to the ban, making it illegal for companies to retaliate against employees for discussing salary differences and opening businesses up to civil liability for salary inequity.
The Paycheck Fairness Act provides essential enhancements to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. That Act resets the statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit every time a female employee receives a paycheck with a discriminatory wage. The law was a narrow response to a devastating Supreme Court ruling, Ledbetter v. Good Year Tire & Rubber Co., which held that women could only sue within 180 days of receiving the first discriminatory paycheck. The Court found, incredibly, that Ms. Ledbetter, the plaintiff in the case, was entitled to no relief because she filed a lawsuit in 1998 after discovering the company had been paying her significantly less than her male counterparts since 1979.
Congress should follow President Obama’s lead in closing the wage gap and paying women fair and equal salaries. Hopefully we will soon think of Equal Pay Day as a relic of the past, and will no longer have to mark a day on the calendar that demonstrates the fifteen months it takes the average woman to earn what the average man earns in twelve.