Gender pay gap takes on added significance in tough economic times

Last week’s White House report on Jobs and Economic Security for America’s Women featured the gender wage gap as a front and center issue. And a recent national poll of more than 1,000 adults conducted for our organization and the Center for Community Change by Lake Research Partners found that people rank equal pay for men and women as one of the most important issues for them personally and for improving the economy as a whole.

These are the facts: Nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act became law, women are paid an average of 77 cents for every dollar paid to men. “Over the course of her lifetime this gap will cost a woman and her family lost wages, reduced pensions and reduced Social Security benefits,” notes the report released by the White House National Economic Council. “American families are relying now, more than ever, on the wages of women. Lower pay for women not only means less economic security for women but also for the families that depend on them, during their years in the workplace and in retirement.”

Women are clearly playing a more critical role in family economic security than ever before. Employed married women’s contribution to total family earnings grew from 45 percent in 2008 to 47 percent last year – the largest single year increase in the past 15 years, according to Wives as Breadwinners, a new study by the Carsey Institute. The Carsey study points out that huge job losses during the recession in such male-dominated industries as manufacturing and construction, has “placed an unprecedented importance on wives’ earnings to keep families afloat.”

Our poll shows growing concern about women’s wages – among men as well as women. Sixty-eight percent of the men surveyed and 79 percent of women said the gender wage gap was one of the most important issues in their own lives. Even more – 74 percent of men and 84 percent of women – said it was one of the most important factors in helping to improve the economy.

The poll also found widespread support for legislation currently under consideration by Congress that would provide women with more tools for ensuring fair wages, make it harder for employers to justify paying different wages for the same work, and ensure businesses breaking the law are held accountable and compensate women fairly. In the survey, 74 percent of women and 69 percent of men supported such a law. Noting that the wage gap cannot be explained by differences in education, hours worked or experience, the White House report also emphasizes its support of the legislation – the Paycheck Fairness Act.

The pay equity issue is more difficult to brush aside as women surpass men by a significant margin in attainment of advanced degrees. With women making up 57 percent of undergraduate students, 60 percent of graduate school students and 50.4 percent of PhD candidates, it’s clear that the pay gap is not due to lack of education or skills. In fact, for many of these women, furthering their educations beyond their male counterparts is a buffer against anticipated wage inequities.

Such options, however, are rarely available to low-income women trying to get a foothold in higher paying jobs and obtain long-term economic stability. Women make up nearly 70 percent of minimum-wage or below workers. Without access to job training, work supports and a pathway to employment in a range of industries, these women and the families who rely on their wages will face increasingly dire circumstances.

Most Americans recognize the urgent need to address the inequities that are preventing women from reaching their full potential in the workplace. 70 percent of those polled said they strongly agree that inequalities in the economy hurt all of us, while nearly half strongly agree that we must fix these inequalities in order to fix the economy.

It’s past time for policy makers to reach the same conclusion. Whether women are heading up their own households or partnering with others, their income is an integral part of their family’s economic security. Given the precipitous decline in wages during the recession, the 23-cent gender pay gap in no longer something struggling families or our nation’s economy can afford to ignore.

Sara K. Gould is president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women; Susan Wefald is executive vice-president and COO of the organization.