How can bills about pay equity have a meaningful impact on the national economy? Look at the facts - 34 percent of working mothers are their family's sole breadwinner, and many more families rely in large part on women's salaries. Nearly two-thirds of women are in the workforce, and women are an ever more important factor fueling American innovation and growing the economy.

And yet, the average woman working full time earns only 77 cents for every dollar earned, on average, by men.

In real terms, the pay gap means that the average woman has $10,000 less each year to invest, save for retirement, spend on education, or support her family. The situation is worse for minority women; Hispanic and Latina women earn just 60 percent of what white men earn, and African American women earn only 70 percent. AAUW's Behind the Pay Gap research report shows that, even when other factors known to affect salary are taken into account, women just one year out of college already receive 5 percent less than male counterparts earn, even when the have the same major and work in the same field. Something is terribly wrong here, and it limits women's ability to contribute meaningfully to the nation's economic recovery and their families' economic security.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would be a real step forward. This comprehensive bill would update the 48-year-old Equal Pay Act by closing loopholes, strengthening incentives for businesses to pay fairly, and prohibiting retaliation against workers who inquire about their employer's wage practices or disclose their own wages. It would provide resources for small businesses and help level the playing field for businesses that do pay fairly.

Americans want the Paycheck Fairness Act. When polled, 84 percent of voters across gender, race, and party affiliation said they support "a new law that would provide women more tools to get fair pay in the
workplace." In the 111th Congress, the bill passed the House with a bipartisan majority; it stalled only in the Senate, barely failing a cloture vote last November despite the support of 58 senators. The party politics played last fall derailed a commonsense bill that could have made a real difference for American women and families.

Pay equity cannot be an issue on which our legislators are polarized and unproductive. Real data reflect the real effect the gender pay gap has on real working women and their families every day. I challenge every member of Congress to listen to what their constituents are saying about equal pay and to take action by becoming a cosponsor of critical pay equity legislation.

With the sluggishness of the economic recovery and the reliance of many families on women's paychecks, it's time to do something meaningful. Let's start with the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Lisa Maatz is the director of Public Policy and Government Relations for the American Association of University Women.