March 15 was National Pay Equity Day. It’s the day when women have to work into a new year to earn the same amount that men earned in the previous year. While National Pay Equity Day came earlier this year than last, meaning that the gender pay gap is narrowing, the general pay equity day does not address the pay differences that Black, Latina, Asian and Native American women earn. Black women will work into September to make the same amount that a man earned last year. Latina women will work into October. Native women work almost until the end of the year (or nearly twice as long) to get equal pay!
One of the reasons we have pay inequality is that employers tend to make salary offers based on what people made in their previous job. In other words, an underpaid woman who reports her salary is likely to get an offer based on her last salary. Instead of valuing the job, no matter who holds it, too many employers value the person who holds it based on their prior pay, not their qualifications or prior experience. President Biden’s March 15 Executive Order on Advancing Economy, Efficiency, and Effectiveness in Federal Contracting by Promoting Pay Equity and Transparency addresses some of the ways the gender pay gap is maintained and develops policies to ensure that past salary is not a consideration in current salary for federal contractors.
This is a policy that other employers should consider. Too many women, especially Black, brown, Native and Asian women, are viewed through a lens darkly, pun intended. Too many employees feel that these women should be “grateful” or “lucky” to be employed with reasonable salaries. Without salary transparency, too many workers earn much less than their peers, even though they are doing the same job. Even with the same education or qualifications, people in the same organization earn vastly different amounts. Without pay transparency laws, the gender pay gap persists. The National Women’s Law Center (nwlc.org) has prepared a fact sheet titled, “Asking for Salary History Perpetuates Pay Discrimination from Job to Job,” exploring this issue. The fact sheet notes that many states have passed laws that prevent the use of salary history in setting current salaries because salary history perpetuates discrimination.
According to the Economic Policy Institute (epi.org), women earn 22% less than men, but grocery stores don’t charge women 22% less for groceries. Utilities don’t give us a break on our telephone, water, or electricity bills because we are women and earn less. The pay gap contributes to women’s economic insecurity. When the pay gap is combined with the effects of COVID on women’s employment, the result is a precarious existence for too many women.
The gender pay gap is not just a women’s issue; it is a family and a human problem. Lily Ledbetter, the outstanding activist who sued the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for pay discrimination. When she sued, the law required that lawsuits be filed within 180 days of experiencing discrimination, so her case was dismissed.
The first piece of legislation that President Obama signed was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. The late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, had a framed copy of the legislation in her chambers.
The Biden executive order is a step in the right direction, but it is a step that affects just a fraction of the workforce. More women need to be more like Lily Ledbetter, prepared to sue exploitive employers. Unfortunately, too many need their jobs more than they need justice. Too many fear negative repercussions if they complain or sue. Too many men turn a blind eye to pay inequity, although they have working mothers, daughters, sisters and wives. Too many think gender discrimination is acceptable.
Our National Pay Equity Day recognition reminds us of how much work remains to close the pay gap and combat gender discrimination. But, as the great abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Where are the people who will forcefully demand an end to gender discrimination? And do those who work for the White House, the House and the Senate experience pay discrimination or earn equal pay?
Malveaux, an economist and author, is the dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.