Women’s Equality Day: Much to Celebrate, Much to Fight For

By Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio

Liz MuioThis week we celebrate Women’s Equality Day, established to commemorate women earning the right to vote.  While we rightly celebrate the anniversary of this milestone in the fight for equality, it is also an appropriate time to reflect on areas where the fight continues – namely, the fight for pay equity.

Since the Equal Pay Act was signed by President Kennedy over 50 years ago, the increased presence of women in the workforce has added a $20 trillion boost to our economy. Working mothers provide, on average, nearly 40 percent of a family’s household income.

While there has been a significant narrowing of the 40 cent pay gap that existed in the early 1960’s, women still make approximately 80 cents on the dollar compared to men. African American women and Latinas fare even worse, earning 60 cents and 55 cents on the dollar respectively. Several recent studies provide us with new disturbing details.

According to a report released by Congress in April, full time working women earn on average $10,800 less per year than men, equivalent to over half a million dollars over the course of a career.

A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine regarding the pay gap between male and female physicians noted that after adjusting for a variety of factors that could account for income differences, female physicians earned on average $20,000 less than their male counterparts. The raw pay gap was a staggering $51,000 a year, a nearly $1.8 million dollar loss of income over the course of a career.

Even in a field such as nursing, where approximately 90 percent of employees are women, the pay gap between male and female nurses is over $5,000.  As researchers have pointed out, an adjustment here would equate to an eight percent pay bump and affect a significant segment of the labor force.

Pay disparities also affect women at the end of their careers as they face retirement. In addition to the day-to-day struggle to pay for childcare, housing and basic necessities, fewer earnings over time hinders a woman’s ability to save for retirement and decreases her contributions to social security, pension plans and personal retirement accounts, therefore reducing her retirement income. Women over 65 are reported to earn 44 percent less than men of the same age – contributing, no doubt, to the fact that women over 75 are twice as likely as their male counterparts to live in poverty.

One way to narrow the wage gap is to increase the number of women in the well-paid and growing middle-skill jobs (those that do not require a bachelor’s degree) in manufacturing, information technology, distribution and logistics. This will not only raise incomes and opportunities for women, but will address the growing needs of our business community for skilled workers in these areas.

A study funded by JPMorgan Chase Foundation and conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found that those women currently in middle-skill jobs are most likely to occupy the lower paying jobs in this category – making under $30,000. Opening up access to jobs in the over $35,000 segment will provide the opportunity for more women to attain family-sustaining wages.

Transparency in the workplace is another way to increase the likelihood of pay equity. Whether provided through collective bargaining, civil service or other measures such as academic studies, knowledge of “who earns what and why” in the workplace forces the issue of equity and fairness into the open.

There are those who believe that the market should regulate itself in order to reduce the gender pay gap as opposed to government action. Women have waited over sixty years for the market to correct itself and at the current rate it will take over 40 more years for the gender gap to close in 2059.

That is too long. Too long for women, too long for their families, and too long for an economy in need of skilled, productive workers.

Lawmakers, businesses, and educational institutions must make it a priority to narrow the pay gap by supporting legislation and policies that address the issues holding women back from reaching the top of the pay scales and earning the wages they deserve.

Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio is a Democrat representing the 15th legislative district in the General Assembly, which includes parts of Mercer and Hunterdon counties.