Equality at last? Not in our paychecks.

But this is an election year, and the punditry is moving beyond the familiar “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads” debate. You can’t open a newspaper or RSS feed without finding some discussion of the “war on women.” From the Komen controversy, to the lunacy of questioning the appropriateness of birth control, to state-mandated vaginal ultrasounds and Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a "slut", there’s been a parade of clueless ideas shocking women down to our toes. But now we’re standing up and speaking out.
 

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We’ve been regaled with cautionary headlines that women will soon overtake men as the “richer sex.” Big change is just around the corner, we're told—especially among young women. These stories are based on data from the 2010 American Community Survey. What they don’t typically reveal is that these gains are only found among a distinct population: unmarried, childless women, aged 22 to 30, who live in certain cities. In short, some young, educated, urban, single women with no kids might make more than their male peers. Is there equality at last? Not really. How do these women fare when compared with similarly situated men? A woman is far more likely to spend her golden years in poverty, in part because the wage problem starts as soon as she throws her graduation cap into the air. Research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) shows that just one year out of college, women working full time already earn less than their male colleagues, even when they work in the same field. Ten years after graduation, the pay gap widens—despite the fact that women are more likely to have advanced degrees.
 
More women are attending and graduating from colleges than ever before, and a record number of women are in the workforce. Yet most women are far from earning wages equal to men’s, let alone surpassing them. Among all full-time workers, the average woman earned just 77 cents on the male dollar. The numbers are worse for women of color. African American and Hispanic women earn a dismal 70 percent and 61 percent of what white men earn, on average. White and Asian women earn, respectively, 82 percent and 88 percent of what white men earn.
 
Skeptics like to claim that there is no real pay gap—that somehow it’s all a product of our imaginations. Worse, these critics prefer to blame women for any disparities, saying the pay gap exists because of choices women make. That’s absurd. Government economists believe that a significant percentage of the pay gap remains unexplained even after adjusting for life choices. That is assuming, of course, that such “choices” themselves are not constrained by stereotypes and discrimination. The AAUW’s research used sophisticated regression analyses of data from the Department of Education, and it found that even when controlling for all the “excuses” to explain the pay gap, women still make less than similarly educated men throughout their careers.
 
The prime argument is that motherhood—not discrimination—is the real culprit behind the pay gap. Let’s ponder that for a moment. If women’s wages are being penalized because we’re caregivers, then we have much larger problems than the pay gap. And if that is the case, then this country—including its policy makers—needs to take a long, hard look at why women are punished for their irreplaceable roles as mothers (or simply their potential to be moms) while fatherhood, equally irreplaceable, actually pays off with a juicy financial bump.
 
Excuses are excuses; facts are facts. Women work hard to balance roles of work and family. We’ve passed laws that have opened doors of opportunity in education and the workforce. Despite all this, the pay gap persists. When women don’t earn equal pay, they aren’t the only ones to suffer—their families do, too.
 
We have a pay gap that economists agree can’t be explained away by women’s choices—no matter how convenient or comfortable it would be for the critics if they could do so. Women, their families, and the entire nation pay the price for applying obsolete gender stereotypes to our social and economic policies. What the AAUW plans to do is to continue to be a force for change in addressing the persistent inequality in women’s paychecks by unmasking and naming the real root causes of the issue, relying on facts over inflated rhetoric, and creating more settings that are supportive of all workers with family responsibilities—regardless of gender. We’ll also continue leading efforts to pass critical legislation such as the Paycheck Fairness Act and supporting regulatory and enforcement efforts to close the pay gap.
 
Equal pay for equal work is about simple fairness. Collectively, women have demonstrated that we have the skills and intelligence to do any job. And we have made enormous gains in education and labor force participation. It’s time for our paychecks and our national policies to catch up to the 21st century—and leave the nostalgia to television.

Maatz is director of public policy and government relations at the AAUW.