NO ONE CAN quarrel with the commonsense proposition that equal pay should be given for equal work.
Yet nearly 50 years after Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, women in the workplace continue to be significantly shortchanged in pay. Data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics just last month show that the longstanding gender wage gap persists, with women in full-time year-round jobs earning just 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male colleagues.
This wage disparity exists in all 50 states and affects women at every educational and occupational level. It is particularly acute for African-American women, at just 67 cents, and Hispanic women, who earn only 58 cents for every dollar paid to men.
Significantly, the wage gap begins when women first enter the workforce, even before factors such as professional experience, family or parenthood can be expected to have an impact. For example, just one year after graduating from college, female graduates working full time earn only 80 percent of the salary of their male peers. Working mothers bear the brunt of pay inequality, as study after study confirms that they are offered less in starting salaries, raises and bonuses.
Pay equity is not just a woman's issue, but one that affects our entire society. With a record 71 million women in the workforce, the gender wage gap hurts the majority of American families, particularly single-parent families, 80 percent of which are headed by women.
Unequal pay is of particular concern in light of the current economy, as two-thirds of American families with children now rely on a woman's earnings for a significant portion of their family's income. Moreover, pay inequality also adversely affects women's retirement benefits, which are often based on lifetime earnings.
On average, the annual shortfall in women's pay adds up to a lifetime earnings gap of more than $430,000.
RECOGNIZING THAT the Equal Pay Act needs to be amended to become a more effective tool to eliminate the gender wage gap, the House overwhelmingly passed the Paycheck Fairness Act in January 2009. Although this bill stalled in the Senate, a vote is finally expected early next month.
Regardless of whether this legislation is passed by the Senate, it is incumbent upon all of us to strive to create gender equality in both the workplace and in society at large.
That salutary goal will be the focus of a historic event this week at the National Constitution Center: Vision 2020: An American Conversation About Women and Leadership.
Women from every state will convene right here in Philadelphia to exchange ideas and develop strategies to help ensure that women finally achieve true equality. Receiving equal pay for equal work would certainly be a good place to start.
Roberta D. Liebenberg is head of the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession and a Vision 2020 Delegate.