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Closing the wage gap: It's a matter of survival for working families

By Valerie Jarrett
Friday, September 17, 2010; A17

America first put an equal-pay law on the books in 1963, when women earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man. While this legislation was landmark at the time, its core provisions require updating if it is to fulfill its promise.

Nearly 50 years later, the wage gap has narrowed by only 18 cents. Despite news reports that the gap narrowed in the last year, the census report released Thursday showed otherwise. Working women are still paid only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man -- and are paid less than men even when they have similar levels of experience and education. For women of color the gap is larger. During a woman's lifetime, this disparity adds up to a substantial loss in income, retirement funds and even benefits.

In this harsh economic environment, the consequences of the pay disparity put women and their families, as well as our economy, at a significant disadvantage. We are still emerging from the deepest recession since the Great Depression. And while we have added private-sector jobs for eight straight months, we remain short of our goal of putting every American who wants a job back to work. Today, too many struggling families are still waiting to feel the benefits of economic progress.

That's why women's wages have perhaps never been more important. Women are the sole or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American families. For them and their families, equal pay is not only a matter of principle; it's a matter of survival.

It is for this reason that President Obama applauds the work of the House of Representatives and strongly supports passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act in the Senate. It is common-sense legislation that will give women the tools they need to obtain equal pay for equal work. The House passed this legislation 256 to 163 in January 2009. The bill is on the Senate calendar and should come up for a vote this month.

Pay equity is an issue of fairness not just for women but also for employers who comply with the law and pay employees what they deserve. The current system rewards businesses that embrace sex-based pay discrimination as a cost-cutting measure and encourages a race to the bottom. The Paycheck Fairness Act will right this wrong by rewarding businesses that set high standards and value their employees rather than taking advantage of them.

It will also eliminate a loophole that some employers use to avoid paying women equal wages. Under the act, while employees will still have to prove that discrimination has taken place, employers will be required to prove in court that any wage differences were based on factors other than sex -- such as education, training or experience -- and were consistent with business necessity. The act will provide victims of sex-based pay discrimination the same remedies under the law that victims of other forms of discrimination have.

The Paycheck Fairness Act will establish sensible protections for employees. The legislation will prohibit retribution against workers who share salary information with their co-workers or draw compensation comparisons across a company's various regional divisions. These provisions will give women the ability to determine whether their pay is fair and will encourage employers to eliminate discriminatory policies by making them more transparent and accessible.

The Paycheck Fairness Act will also improve federal agency access to wage-related data, while protecting confidentiality. When it becomes law, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will have access to important information from employers that, with time and analysis, will strengthen our ability to ensure compliance. The Labor Department will also be able to begin education and outreach efforts that will increase both employer and employee knowledge of their respective responsibilities and rights regarding equal pay.

For these reasons and more, the Paycheck Fairness Act merits swift passage. America cannot move forward, prosperous and faithful to its ideals, if the pay gap is allowed to persist for another 50 years. This act is not only good for women, it's good for working families, for business and for the American economy.

The writer is senior adviser and assistant to President Obama for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement, and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

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