When President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act on January 29, 2009, he stated that he wanted to send the clear message that “making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone.” At the time, these words may not have stood out as overly significant. But seven years later, as we approach the last Ledbetter anniversary of the Obama presidency, these words have proven to be a defining theme of the administration’s work on equal pay, work that has fundamentally changed the landscape and is critical to future progress.
By connecting economic growth to the full use of our nation’s talent, the president made clear that both women and men are critical to our economic security, long-term productivity and competitiveness, and overall prosperity. In fact, research conducted by the Center for American Progress has found that without women’s participation in the workforce over the last four decades, our nation’s GDP would have been lower and inequality would have been substantially higher.
Women’s success in the workforce and ability to provide support to their families, however, depends on being paid fairly for their work. There has been a stubborn gender pay gap that has persisted for decades: Women earn 79 cents for every dollar earned by men and the gap is even higher for women of color.
But successfully tackling the pay gap requires an understanding of the multiple factors actually driving gender wage differences. Research by leading scholars reveals that closing the pay gap requires work on multiple fronts, such as raising wages in the lowest wage occupations where women disproportionately work, making sure that our workplaces operate free of discrimination, expanding women’s access to higher-paying jobs, and promoting policies such as paid leave that enable women to fulfill their work and family obligations and remain in the workforce.
This comprehensive approach to combating different contributors to the pay gap—including discrimination, undervalued jobs, and inadequate work-family policies—is clearly evident in a snapshot of the Obama administration’s efforts. For example, the president took action on pay discrimination, first by signing the Ledbetter Act to remove unfair time limits on when pay discrimination victims must file their cases, and later by issuing executive orders covering federal contractors to require more pay transparency, reduce pay secrecy, and prohibit retaliation when workers discuss their pay.
Further, Obama’s work to improve wages in low wage jobs where women are more likely to work included not only pushing for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage—two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, disproportionately African American women and Latina—but also taking action himself. He issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for workers working on federal contracts to at least $10.10 per hour, and the Department of Labor issued regulations closing a legal loophole that had excluded home care workers, mostly women and often women of color, from minimum wage protections for decades.
Finally, the administration has worked to strengthen work-family policies, including a push for paid family leave and paid sick days to enable more women to enter or stay in the workforce without putting their families at risk. President Obama also issued an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide paid sick days to workers on federal contracts, and directives to help expand federal workers’ access to paid family leave and flexible work-family policies.
Taken together, these actions tell an important story about women’s lives and the collective steps needed to close the gender wage gap. The president’s legacy represents crucial progress, adopting concrete policy changes to promote equal pay and elevating a national conversation about the roadmap for future change.
But the work is not done. The president has limited reach and congressional action is sorely needed to provide all workers with access to policies that could help reduce wage disparities. Comprehensive solutions—such as increased pay transparency, limiting the use of job criteria such as prior salary that can depress wages, eliminating legal loopholes that can provide cover for discrimination, and examining disaggregated data to target industries with the sharpest pay disparities—are essential to fully address the wage gap.
In a year when many policymakers jockeying for air time will profess their support for equal pay, what is needed from the next president and Congress are concrete actions to cement and expand workplace protections against pay discrimination, raise wages for low-wage workers, and expand access to strong work-family policies. Only then can we erode the pay gap once and for all.
Frye is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where her work focuses on a wide range of women’s issues, including work-family balance, pay equity, and women’s leadership.