Equal pay is not only about righting an injustice — it is also good for the U.S. economy. Persistent earning gaps lead to less family income, ongoing poverty and an inability to save for retirement. The Institute of Women’s Policy Research estimates that in 2016 U.S. women on average earned 80.5 cents to every dollar earned by men. The pay disparity is greater for women of color: Latinas earn 54 cents and African American women 63 cents to every dollar earned by men.
Recent research estimates that the U.S. economy would produce many billions more in annual income if women received equal pay. Yet the federal laws which govern equal pay in the United States were enacted in the 1960s and have not been revised to reflect current working conditions for women.
In 2016 Oregon women earned just 79 cents to every dollar earned by men, ranking 27th out of the 50 states in pay equity. In U.S. Congressional District 2, the gap is more dismal; women earned 75.9 percent to every dollar earned by men in 2016.
In 2017 the Oregon Legislature took a stand by enacting the Equal Pay Act. Employers cannot pay less salary, wages or benefits because of sex, race, color, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, age, disability or veteran status. Employers may not ask prospective employees about salary history. This is important because if a woman was underpaid at her last job, the wage gap is perpetuated if she has to disclose her former salary. The law also lists what reasons employers may use for paying workers differently and outlines how employers may conduct valid equal pay assessments. Wronged employees may file a legal claim for back pay and other damages beginning in 2019.
The new Oregon law has strengthened equal pay protections, but closing the pay gap requires more than legislation. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has proposed a three-pronged plan to achieve pay equity:
• The first step is stronger federal and state laws. Federal laws require a comprehensive update for the 21st century. Oregon must continue to strengthen and refine state legislation.
• Second, companies must recognize that fair pay creates thriving workplaces which benefit both employees and businesses. Many U.S. companies have already committed to equal pay and to making this practice transparent, including Adobe, Delta Air Lines, Microsoft and Zillow. Conducting pay audits and bans on using salary history are some of the methods to fight the cycle of underpaying women.
• Third, women must be empowered in their personal struggles to achieve equal pay. AAUW has pledged to train 10 million women in negotiating their financial futures by 2022 and designed Start Smart for college women. This program helps develop better negotiating skills to secure a job after graduation. Work Smart was created for women already in the workforce who want to negotiate for a raise, promotion or new job. “It’s Negotiable: A Salary Skill Builder” is an online training which helps women identify and articulate their personal value in salary negotiations.
Locally the Ashland AAUW Public Policy committee is hoping to spread the word about equal pay using the Equal Pay Toolkit. The toolkit was developed by women for women in Oregon.
AAUW has been empowering women and girls since 1881. The 170,000 members and supporters are ambitiously fighting to close the pay gap by 2030. You can find more information on the gender pay gap, pay equity laws and our tools for women at aauw.org/fairpay.
Paula Wiiken is Public Policy Chair for the AAUW Ashland branch.