It's been more than 50 years since President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, but the gender wage gap is stubbornly still with us.
According to the newest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, American women who work full time, year-round, still earn only 78 cents for every dollar that men earn.
That means that by age 59, the average woman will have lost out on approximately $531,000 due to the wage gapand the loss climbs to nearly $800,000 if she has a college degree. Worse, progress in closing the gap has stalled recently. Although it narrowed steadily over the 1960s and through the '90s, it has barely budged in the past decade.
A recent report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates that Illinois, for example, won't get to pay parity until 2065.
Although the state's wage gap is slightly better than the national averagewomen here earn 80 cents for every dollar a man earnsour rate of progress actually is slower.
The wage gap is a fact of life for women regardless of career level, their field, educational level or whether they are mothers. Census data show that women earn more than men in only nine out of 342 professions. This includes nursing, a female-dominated field, where men make $5,100 more on average annually than women. Even in low-paying jobs in food service, retail and hospitality, the gender wage gap persists.
Here in Chicago, where I'm based, nearly one in three employed women is working a low-wage job compared with one in four men.
There are plenty of causes: discrimination in hiring, pay and promotions; women being crowded into just 21 of 500 lower-paying occupational categories; and the widespread view that once women become mothers, they aren't good candidates for advancement. And as a society, we simply undervalue the work that women do, especially care-giving. Should parking lot attendants really be paid more than child-care workers?
It isn't only a question of fairness. Women's earnings are crucial to the financial stability of families and our economy. Two-thirds of mothers are co- or primary breadwinners. In 2012, Illinois lost approximately $20 billion in income due to the wage gap, which comes out to $11,000 per year per woman.
The wage gap is not a law of nature; it is a product of decisions that individuals and employers make. And it says something about our values. We can certainly make decisions that would accelerate progress toward fairer pay and close the wage gap.
One way to do that is for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced half a decade ago, to strengthen and modernize the Equal Pay Act.
Companies don't have to wait for Congress. Most large companies in North America now run pay equity analyses (although some question whether their approach is statistically robustand their teams do not necessarily have a formal process to fix inequities).
Shareholders at some companies that don't, such as eBay and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., have filed proposals that would require the mega-retailers to disclose pay disparities.
Last year, retailer Gap Inc. announced that it had achieved equal pay for equal work for all of its workers, from front-line retail employees to those in top management. Gap verified its claim with an independent external review.
More companies should join the ranks of advocacy groups and lawmakers working toward gender parity. To put a strong floor under those efforts, we need to pass legislation that will restructure our workplace to support working women and reflect the needs of modern families.
Working women can't afford to wait for 2065 to get equal pay.
Deborah Thorne is vice chair of the board of Women Employed in Chicago. She recently wrote this opinion piece for Crain's Chicago Business magazine, a sister publication of Tire Business.