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We still have not corrected inequality

By Donna Hendel

At our recent state convention, several members of the American Association of University Women of Minnesota had a discussion about Lilly Ledbetter’s book, "Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond." Ledbetter worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Gadsen, Ala. She had grown up in Possum Trot, Ala., and had worked in the cotton fields as soon as she was old enough. She knew that a good day’s work resulted in a good day’s pay and knew that boys and girls in the fields received the same pay. She assumed that was how the job market worked.

When she was ready to enter the job market, she landed a dream job with Goodyear. After several years of hard work, she was the first woman to be promoted to supervisor at her workplace. She was proud that her advanced training and hard work had resulted in her promotion to be one of four supervisors. One day, however, she discovered that all three of the male supervisors, her peers, received significantly more pay than she. Her pay was $3,727 per month. The lowest paid male supervisor received $4,286 per month.

As members of AAUW of Minnesota discussed the book, story after story emerged regarding outrageous pay disparity all over Minnesota – both in rural counties and in the larger cities; in small businesses as well as large companies. Many members mentioned that pay inequity is tolerated in this economy because women are grateful to be employed. Members also mentioned fears of retaliation and legal expenses as factors in the current tolerance of pay inequity. Our discussion ended with the question: What good does it do to make laws if they do not work? We resolved that we must all return to our communities and continue to fight for equal pay for equal work.

After Ledbetter found out about the unequal pay at Goodyear, she spent the next 11 years fighting the disparity. Her fight ultimately resulted in President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. But while this law essentially restored workers’ rights to challenge illegal wage discrimination, we must do more to give employers and employees the tools they need to close the wage gap.

June 10 marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. When President Kennedy signed this bill, the intent was that women and men would be paid equally for equal work. Sadly, 50 years later, we still have not corrected the inequality. Despite women and men paying equal tuition for schools or advanced training and spending equal amounts of time completing internships or apprenticeships, study after study finds that a pay gap remains. AAUW’s recent research report, Graduating to a Pay Gap, found that even one year out of college, a typical college-educated woman working full time earned $35,296 a year, compared to $42,918 for a typical college-educated man. The study found that even after controlling for multiple factors, an unexplained 7 percent pay gap persists for these graduates. We cannot allow this to continue.

The 113th Congress has an opportunity to change the pay disparity. The Paycheck Fairness Act has been proposed to strengthen and update the Equal Pay Act. It contains meaningful steps to create incentives for employers to follow the law, help women negotiate for equal pay, and strengthen federal enforcement efforts.

Today, most young families need two incomes to survive. Pay equity is critical to family economy and to our nation’s recovery. If women were paid equally for equal work, dollars would flow more freely into the economy — definitely a needed economic stimulus!

The Equal Pay Act made equal pay for women a legal right, but it still is not a reality. The Paycheck Fairness Act would move us toward pay equality by strengthening current laws.

Change should not take 50 years. Let’s take a step toward eliminating the pay gap.

Donna Hendel is co-president of the American Association of University Women Fergus Falls Branch.