Harris can bring gender pay inequality into focus

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris walks the abbreviated parade route after U.S. President Joe Biden's inauguration on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Men make substantially higher incomes than women for performing the same work, in the same company. 

In fact, Latina women only earn 63 percent of the salary of comparable men, with Black women and white women earning 69 percent and 82 percent, respectively. On average, women lose almost 408,000 in earnings over the course of a 40-year career. The losses are greater with Latina women and Black women — they lose as much as 1 million dollars. Equally troubling is that the gender-wage gap has not improved over the last 16 years.

This gender-wage gap is occurring despite federal legislation that governs equal pay for equal work. Congress passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. The act prohibits wage discrimination between men and women who perform jobs that require substantially the same skill, effort and responsibility within the same company. The act also provides exceptions to its mandate for wage equity that include pay differences based on seniority, merit, production and other factors. 

Because the act has been in effect since 1963 and the gender-wage gap remains low for many women, the Equal Pay Act has failed to reach its intended goal — ending gender-wage inequality.

Changes must be made to close the gender-wage gap — it has been stagnant for far too long.

With the United States having inaugurated the first woman vice president, the gender disparity issues have been brought further to the forefront and, with it, the country’s desire to reflect diversity — including gender diversity — in its leadership.

Vice President Harris has raised the issue of gender-wage equality throughout her political career. As a senator, she previously proposed that companies should face a fine that includes a percentage of their profits for failing to comply with the Equal Pay Act. Her plan places the responsibility on each company to disclose their wage data to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency with the authority to enforce the Equal Pay Act. Harris’s proposals are a great start that could achieve gender-wage equity. 

However, if Harris’s fine and information disclosure proposal is adopted, companies could continue to lawfully pay men substantially more than women if they establish that seniority, merit, production or other factors explain the disparity. But factors such as seniority and production are fallible given that women are twice as likely to miss work because of child care. Other factors, including merit, are wholly subjective and fail to provide a clear mandate regarding the parameters of its applicability. The Equal Pay Act exceptions are a bar to gaining wage equity in this country and have continued to constrain wage-equity for nearly 60 years.  

Exceptions to the Equal Pay Act should be eliminated. These exceptions are often used as a means of effectuating gender-wage disparities and fail to adhere to the real purpose of the Equal Pay Act, to prohibit wage disparities for individuals who are essentially performing the same work in the same company. 

For instance, the National Women’s Law Center reports that courts have interpreted the “factors other than sex” exception to the Equal Pay Act as a limitless allowance for gender-wage disparities. This exception has been deemed the “any reason under the sun” defense. The Equal Pay Act exceptions as a whole create loopholes that make it far too easy for companies to justify inequalities and avoid liability. 

It is noteworthy that this country’s failure to achieve gender-wage equity has a substantial impact on American families, including their children. In fact, women are the sole or primary breadwinner in 41 percent of American families. When 90 percent of all temporary assistance and welfare recipients are single mothers and 60 percent of all single mother households with children receive food and nutrition assistance, it makes clear who is suffering most from this inequity — children. 

The issue of gender-wage equity has a huge impact on the welfare of children and their ability to attain basic necessities such as food. Substantial change is necessary to not only address, but to close the gender-wage gap. The welfare and future of this country’s children depend on it. 

To be sure, many companies may wish to reward merit, seniority and production goals. However, to allow companies to do so at the expense of gender-wage equity is to continue this country’s longstanding and poor history of paying men more than women for the same work in the same company. It can also leave the American child with limited resources and a lack of bare necessities. 

Congress should move forward with the elimination of all exceptions to providing equal pay for equal work in this country. If gender-wage equity is the goal, then there can be no exception to its mandate. 

Keisha Williams, Esq., is a union-side labor attorney, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law and a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project.

Tags Black women eeoc Equal pay Equal Pay Act Equity gender gap gender-gap equity Latina women pay gap

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