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Category: Politics, Economy

Lawmakers Turn Back the Clock on Women’s Rights

| April 17, 2012

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Josh Murphy and Margarita Gomez rally for Equal Pay Day at the Colorado State Capitol. Photo: 9to5 Colorado

On this year's Equal Pay Day, Linda Meric, the executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, explains why pay equity is an economic plus for the United States.

On April 5, 2012, Governor Scott Walker signed a repeal of Wisconsin’s 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which allowed victims of workplace discrimination to seek damages in state courts. Wisconsin was one of 44 states with laws providing remedies for employees who experience discrimination.  When the bill was enacted, Wisconsin ranked 36 in the nation in gender equity; since then the state improved ten places in that ranking. Yet, instead of continued progress, Walker chose to protect companies proven to violate state law and hurt Wisconsin's families and economy.

Wisconsin state senator Glenn Grothman, a major force behind the repeal, claims money is more important to men than to women.  With misogyny taking center stage this 2012 election cycle, let’s hope we don’t see repeats of this attack on equal pay for equal work. But so far, this “war on women” has legislators voting to limit women’s control over their health, men of national and international prominence assaulting women physically and verbally with carte blanche, candidates speaking against women serving in combat, and new data proving women pay more than men for the same health insurance. And the rhetoric claiming pay discrimination doesn’t exist is growing louder.

The simple truth is that a significant pay gap exists for women and people of color. In almost all the occupations tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women earn less than men. Today, April 17, is Equal Pay Day. People across the country are protesting the pay gap that is still shortchanging women. Women were paid 77 cents for every dollar men got paid in 2010 annual earnings. For women of color, the pay gap is even wider. African American women earned 67 cents and Latinas 58 cents for every dollar earned by white males, the highest earners.

Women don’t choose to earn less. But the pay gap is affected by several factors including occupational segregation—women who work primarily with other women in undervalued, underpaid occupations. For example, women make up 97 percent of office workers, 88 percent of home health care workers, 95 percent of child care workers, and 71 percent of restaurant servers. Overall, women remain overrepresented among low-wage workers, making up an estimated 49 percent of the workforce, but 59 percent of the low-wage workforce. 

Even when working in the same occupation as a man, women earn less. The same is true for workers of color compared to white workers. Women lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, up to over a million, over their careers. That means less money to make ends meet and achieve economic security for families today.  It also means less retirement savings for tomorrow—earning less, there is less to save, and social security and pensions are based on earnings.

Another cause for gender wage inequity is the lack of family flexibility.  Too many working women are penalized financially for family caregiving because they lack access to policies such as paid sick days and family leave. This is particularly troublesome for single low-wage earning women with children, who on average have the lowest annual income.

And then there’s the illegal gender discrimination that still occurs. For example, recent cases against Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, allege unequal pay for equal work and lack of promotional opportunities for women. These practices still happen, which makes it more important than ever to have laws on the books like the one repealed by Governor Walker, which allowed women their day in court.

Governor Walker, other elected officials and even some presidential candidates are turning back the clock on women’s rights, and putting women’s economic security in further jeopardy, at a time they should be taking steps to assist women in getting ahead and strengthen the economy. 

Pay equity is good for the nation's financial health—it reduces poverty and stimulates the economy.  It reduces stress-related health problems and health care costs.  The World Economic Forum estimates closing the employment gender gap could increase U.S. GDP by up to 9 percent.

The country is leading up to an election where women will play a major role in choosing our president.  Candidates need to focus on issues that are important to women. Contrary to Senator Grothman’s fictitious claims, women do care about money. So for those political candidates vying to win the women’s vote, a word to the wise: focus on pay equity and the economy.  All women deserve to be paid fairly, and when they are, their families and the economy will win.

To find the wage gap in your state, click here for the National Partnership for Women & Families map.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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