American women hit a detour on the road toward equal pay with men.
From 1990 to 1995, wages have stagnated at 71 to 72 cents for every dollar that men earn, economists say.
And one group claims that gap costs the average woman almost half a million dollars over a lifetime of work.
This wage gap affects women across the board - all ages, races, all jobs at all levels - from secretaries and cafeteria cooks to computer systems analysts and chief executives.
Advocates on the issue have pushed to make today, April 11, the first annual National Pay Inequity Awareness Day. President Clinton lent his signature to make it official.
"Business and political leaders haven't really taken it seriously," says Susan Bianchi-Sand, executive director of the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE), a Washington-based nonprofit group. "And it's been comfortable just to continue undervaluing the work of women and people of color."
The wage gap represents the median annual earnings of women versus men and is controversial, because the aggregate numbers are not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison.
But the gap has enormous implications for women's personal budgets, their pensions, and even the nation's economy.
The issue becomes more urgent as more women head US households. The average woman loses approximately $420,000 over a lifetime due to unequal pay, says the NCPE.
Still, women have made progress on the pay front, with sharp improvement during the 1980s.
Between 1920 and 1980, women's wages grew 20 percent faster than men's.
And while the gap has continued to narrow in the past 20 years, much of the change reflects a drop in men's earnings, economists say.
Yet other factors persist.
Ms. Bianchi-Sand calls for better enforcement of laws already on the books, banning gender discrimination in equal jobs. Women earn equal pay in only 2 out of 90 jobs, according to 1995 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The biggest drag on women's earning power is that they often take time out of the work force for child rearing, says Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a resident fellow on the National Advisory Board of the Independent Women's Forum in Arlington, Va.
"Women are making tremendous progress," she says, getting PhD's and professional degrees and progressing further in the workplace.
"Still," she says, "I think they will never be 50-50 [with men] because of the child factor."
Indeed, the size of the pay gap itself is controversial.
"The 72-cent-on-the-dollar wage gap is just a myth because it just averages all women and all men," Ms. Furchtgott-Roth says.
When comparing men and women in comparable jobs, with similar education and experience, and adjusting for time women step out of the work force, she says the differences in pay are quite small.
In fact, she says, women in such jobs as college administration, engineering, and economics, earn as much as, sometimes more than men.
A recent national survey of workers, ages 27 to 33 with no children, puts women's earnings near 98 percent of men's.
But there's more.
Much of the female work force remains segregated in lower-paid jobs traditionally held by women.
In 1995, 60 percent of all employed women worked in technical/sales, service, and administrative occupations, according to the Labor Department.
Only 29 percent of women worked in the higher paying managerial and professional fields.
A National Academy of Sciences report in 1981 found that education, number of years worked, and interruptions in work life explain some of the wage difference, but not all.
"In many instances," the study found, "jobs held by women and minorities pay less, at least in part, because they were held mainly by women and minorities."
And Bianchi-Sand says child-rearing is no excuse for lower pay. "The idea that women don't put work above family is built on a 50-year-old model of the workplace and of families, and that model doesn't exist anymore."
"It's not acceptable," she adds, "to say that if a woman leaves the workplace for a short period of time that she has to get less pay."
Younger women do tend to do better. Among workers ages 16 to 24, women earn 90.7 percent of what men earn, yet among women ages 55 to 64, the wage gap widens to 64.7 percent.