Enforce the Equal-Pay Act

THIRTY years ago this summer, a landmark bill promised working women a fairer paycheck. That law, the Equal Pay Act, prohibits employers from paying unequal wages to men and women who perform equal or substantially equal work. Its passage signified the federal government's intent to fight gender-based pay discrimination.

Some progress is obvious. "Help wanted" ads no longer specify gender. And school districts no longer use one wage scale for female employees and another for male employees.

Yet much of the law's promise remains unfulfilled. Women still earn, on average, only 70 cents for every dollar men receive. The wage gap remains strong within occupations. Female nurses, for example, are paid 10 percent less than their male counterparts. Female managers are paid 34 percent less than male managers.

At lower levels, part of the gap exists because of women's concentration in female-dominated fields - child care, clerical jobs, service work - and because of women's more irregular employment patterns as they care for families. But even at the upper echelons, women typically earn less. A new study by Korn/Ferry International finds that although senior female executives have doubled their salaries in the past 10 years to an average of $187,000, they earn only two-thirds as much as men in similar position s.

As a special report on women in business in today's Monitor makes clear, women have made impressive gains in the workplace. Even so, much remains to be done: Pervasive pay inequities penalize not only employed women but also their families.

As one way to improve women's opportunities for equality, the Equal Pay Act must be more vigorously enforced. In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed 79 wage-discrimination cases under the Equal Pay Act. In 1992, it filed just two. According to lawyers at the Women's Legal Defense Fund in Washington, employers know the EEOC is not enforcing the Equal Pay Act, so they don't worry about it.

Lawmakers and employers can help by improving efforts to train women to perform traditionally male jobs, such as those in the skilled trades, that offer higher pay and better benefits. They can also target practices that depress wages for women in female-dominated jobs.

The 30th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act serves as a useful reminder that whatever the job, the laborer, male or female, is equally worthy of his - or her - hire.

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