This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which was signed into law by President Kennedy on June 10, 1963. The legislation required that employers give women and men equal pay for equal work. The Equal Pay Act was one of the first steps in the effort to eliminate the gender gap in wages.
Since the passage of the Equal Pay Act, the gap between men’s and women’s wages has shrunk considerably, but still remains. In 1979 the median wage for women was equal to 63% of the median wage for men. By 2012 that ratio had risen to 83%. In West Virginia, the ratio rose from 52% to 75% from 1979 to 2012.
While differences in education, occupation, and part-time status account for some of the difference, the gender gap persists even when these factors are controlled for, particularly for low-education workers. According to the Government Accountability Office, women earned 86 cents for every dollar men earned, after adjusting for available factors that may affect pay, like education, age, industry and occupation.
And, while the gender gap has shrunk, not all of the reasons for the decrease have been positive. Some of the progress has been the result of declining wages for men, rather than increasing wages for women. Another issue is the distribution of the progress. Most of the recent wage progress for women has occurred in the top 20 percent of earners, with the majority of women enjoying little of the benefits.
Another issue for gender pay equality is motherhood. Again, much of the progress made in closing the gender pay gap has gone to childless women. Today, motherhood is a greater indicator of wage inequality than gender. Not only do mothers earn less than comparable workers who are childless, they also less likely to be hired if they leave or try to change their jobs.
While legislation like the Equal Pay Act addressed the blatant discrimination that working women faced 50 years ago, the issue of gender pay equality still exists, and is far more complex than men simply earning more than women.
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