A family eating dinner (from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

More women as the primary breadwinners? More men staying at home and taking care of the kids? This may sound like a prime step to gender equality and the eradication of gender roles, but unfortunately the reality is not as cheerful. Women may be replacing men as primary breadwinners in many families, but women still only earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar paid to men for equal work, according to the US Census Bureau.  The pay inequity can significantly impact a family’s income, especially when the woman is the breadwinner.

Married women are increasingly out-earning their husbands, not due to salary increases, but because in the first year of the recession in 2008, men accounted for three out of every four lost jobs. According to an analysis of the Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group Files, in early 2009, 5.4% of working wives’ husbands were unemployed, compared to 2.4% in early 2007. The number of families with working husbands and unemployed wives rose at a much lower rate, going from 1.6% to 3.3%.

While increased economic autonomy for married women is certainly something to cheer about, the reality is that women are still not earning their fair share. In families where both spouses are employed, the wife earns approximately one-third of the family income, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If the wage gap were closed, families living on a mother’s income would be able to afford more health insurance, groceries, gas, and other important goods. For instance, according to state-by-state research conducted by the National Partnership for Women and Families, if women were paid equally, Connecticut women would be able to pay for 3.7 years’ worth of family insurance, and Washington state women could afford an additional 1.7 years’ worth of food. If the wage gap were to be eradicated, the loss of a husband’s paycheck due to the recession or other causes would be less devastating.

Legislation does exist to protect women’s right to equal pay, but passage of a bill that would further protect women has been frequently delayed. The Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA), H.R. 1519 in the House and S. 797 in the Senate, would reinforce and improve the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) by narrowly defining several aspects of the EPA, providing for class action law suits, prohibiting the punishment of employees for discussing wages, improving the collection of salary information by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, reinstating Department of Labor pay equity programs, and expanding the types of compensation plaintiffs can receive.

The Act has 35 cosponsors in the Senate and 180 cosponsors in the House. Actions have been stalled, however, since mid-2011. On April 12, 2011, the bill was read twice in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). On May 20, 2011 the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. Since then, no congressional actions have been taken and, although the economy shows signs of recovery, families are still suffering. If the PFA passed, some of this suffering could be alleviated as families depending on a wife’s salary could afford more food, better insurance, and other necessities to improve their situation. Women and their families deserve the protections of the PFA and Congress must act now, when more and more families depend on the wages of women

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.