Equal Pay Day Highlights Persistent U.S. Race/Gender Wage Gap

President Obama today issued a proclamation marking Equal Pay Day—the day to which women, on average, have to work to be paid as much as their white, male counterparts were paid by the close of last year.

“The pay gap between men and women offends our values and Americans,” stated Obama, “and as long as it exists, our businesses, our communities, and our Nation will suffer the consequences.”

A spate of research shows that the gender wage gap remains a major problem for women across the country, and in his proclamation, President Obama noted that “the gender pay gap in the United States is among the largest of many industrialized nations.”

According to a report released last week by the U.S. Congressional Joint Economic Committee (JEC), women are paid an average of 79 cents for every dollar a man earns. For some women of color, the gap is much wider—African American women are paid 60 cents for every dollar a white man earns, and Latinas a paltry 55 cents.

If women had equal pay in 2015, they could afford to buy food for 83 more weeks, make seven more months of mortgage and utilities payments, or pay rent for 11 more months.

This seemingly immovable wage gap has a profound impact on lifetime earnings and retirement benefits. Indeed, research from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) shows that because of the current wage gap, women can expect to lose $430,480 over the course of a 40-year career compared to what the typical white man earns during the same period. For African American women, the wage gap grows to $877,480 nationwide, while Latinas lose more than $1 million.

These averages become even more pronounced in certain states. Louisiana, which boasts one of the largest wage gaps in the nation, has a $671,840 gap for women on average, and skyrockets to $1.13 million for African-American women, $1.18 million for Latinas, $1.1 million for Native America women, and $779,000 for Asian-American women.

“Lower pay throughout their working lives also means that women contribute less to retirement plans, receive smaller pensions and smaller Social Security benefits,” said JEC Ranking Member Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). “The result is that women have substantially less income than men in retirement and are much more likely to live in poverty as they grow older.”

Not even post-secondary education can guarantee a woman equal pay. In fact, the JEC report reveals that women with graduate degrees are paid about $5,000 less per year than men with bachelor’s degrees. And for working women who decide to become mothers, the wage gap can grow substantially upon returning to work: Many are paid less than women without children—a “mommy penalty”—while men who become fathers actually receive a “daddy bonus,” earning more than their childless male peers.

“The gender wage gap, as it is currently measured, only talks about the difference in wages between men and women—what is often left out of the equation is additional benefits that come with some employment, including commissions, bonuses, and retirement plans,” says Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “Added all together, the gap is even bigger. At a time when 31% of the nation’s households live below the poverty level, we need Congress to follow the lead of states like California and institute swift policy changes to combat the wage gap.”

Earlier this year, President Obama empowered the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in coordination with the Department of Labor, to collect pay data sorted by gender, race, and ethnicity from businesses with 100 or more employees. The data collection, which will occur annually, covers over 63 million employees and will provide more concrete information on pay discrimination across industries and occupations. Unlike previous data collection proposals, this new action will include information on benefits and retirement packages, and not simply wage information, providing a more comprehensive picture of the gender income gap.

Despite President Obama moving forward to address discriminatory pay, legislative action is still needed to shrink the gender wage gap. There is key legislation in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate that would help significantly help this effort. The Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced in the House by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and in the Senate by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), would prohibit retaliation for sharing pay information, allow workers to sue for punitive damages of wage discrimination, as well as require employers to prove that any pay disparity is not on the basis of sex. Women Senators and equal pay advocates gathered last week to call for the measure’s passage, which has been blocked by Republicans in the Senate repeatedly.

Another, less well-known bill has also been introduced in the U.S. House. The Fair Pay Act, introduced by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to prohibit discrimination in the payment of wages on account of sex, race, or national origin and provide for equal pay for comparable work. Together with the Paycheck Fairness Act, this bill would help workers who are paid less for doing  jobs that are equivalent in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions, even if the jobs themselves are dissimilar.

A Twitter storm about Equal Pay Day will be held today from 2-3 pm ET co-hosted by the American Association of University Women, the Feminist Majority, and the National Women’s Law Center, among other organizations, using the hashtag #EqualPay.

Support eh ERA banner