Let's make 2016 the year of pay equality for women

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Let's make 2016 the year of pay equality for women

Being a Puerto Rican female in America, I struggle every day to find my place in a white world, especially professionally. I always wonder if I’m getting hired because the company needs more color or women or if maybe, just maybe, because I’m the right person for the job, regardless of my race and gender.

For so many women – both white and non-white – not only is that struggle very real, it’s a daily reminder that we still have a lot of work to do as a society. While women make up half the workforce, we still make less than men; we currently make 79 cents to every man’s dollar, and if this continues, it will take 43 years for women to reach pay parity, at which point I will be 73 and still pissed off.

What’s more, the pay gap is even greater for women of color – African-American women earn 64 cents and Hispanic women earn 56 cents to each white man’s dollar. The pay gap also varies by location: in Washington, D.C., women average 90 cents to every man’s dollar while women in Wyoming – ironically called ‘The Equality State" – make 64 cents to their male colleagues.

Disgusted yet? Here are more startling facts about pay disparity:

  • In 1963 (the same year the Equal Pay Act was established, more on that later) women were paid 59 cents to the man’s dollar, which means it took us 53 years to provide women 20 more cents – how pathetic is that?

  • According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), if equal pay for women happened immediately across the board, it would result in an annual $447.6 billion gain nationally for women and their families, cutting the poverty rate in half. But because of pay disparity, a typical woman loses $499,101 over 15 years.

  • Women have to work approximately 60 extra days (roughly three months) to earn what men did at the end of the previous year. In fact, in 1996 the National Committee on Pay Equity marked April 14 as Equal Pay Day, a date that was originated to symbolize how far into the year the average American woman would have to work to earn what the average American man did the year before.

  • While jobs predominantly done by women pay less on average than jobs predominantly done by men, women have made strides during the last few decades to fill the gaps and move into occupations and industries previously filled almost exclusively by men. Sadly, their strides (and the strides of men who work in fields predominantly filled with women) haven’t done much for equal pay: men working in the 20 most common occupations for women earn more than the women in those roles.

  • When women suffer from pay disparity, so do their families. For some families, unfair pay is the difference between living above or below the poverty line and the difference between access to and affordability of quality childcare and education. Plus, women who take time off of work to take care of a family member or raise a child are frequently passed over for promotions.

  • What’s more, employers are less likely to hire mothers or mothers-to-be, and if they are hired, they tend to be paid less than childless woman. Sadly, once a mother returns to the workforce, she often experiences a "motherhood penalty."

Not only is pay disparity unfair and inexcusable, it’s bad for the economy and society. What can be done to fix it?

First, let’s explore what has and is being done to make pay parity a reality.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) established a national minimum wage in 1938 and was changed and amended dozens of times (most often to raise the minimum wage) over the decades. Its most significant amendment was the Equal Pay Act (EPA) in 1963 which made it illegal to pay women less money than men for doing the same job. The EPA was administered and enforced by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and signed into law by President John F. Kennedy, and it regulates the conduct of local, state, and federal governments and most private employers and covers virtually all workers.

What is the Equal Pay Act?

Quite simply, the Equal Pay Act requires men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work. While the jobs do not need to be identical, they do need to be substantially equal, and job content (not job titles) determines that. The EEOC says, "Specifically, the EPA provides that employers may not pay unequal wages to men and women who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and that are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment." Let’s look at how that breaks down:

Skill. While skill is measured by factors like experience, ability, and education, the only skill that matters in determining same skill for same pay is if you have the skill needed to perform the job. If you’re both accountants, but you have your master’s degree in bioengineering, you don’t deserve more pay because your additional skill isn’t necessary or applicable for the job at hand.

Effort. Referring to the amount of physical or mental exertion needed to perform the job, an employer is protected if she pays the person more money that has to try harder. If an employer has two executive assistants, but one drives him around all day while the other talks to his clients, manages his schedule, and creates presentations for meetings, the latter should be paid more. While they are both assisting him to perform his everyday duties, the person who has to think more on her feet and exert more mental energy is exhibiting more effort.

Responsibility. In determining same responsibility for same pay, it’s all about the degree of accountability. If one grocery store clerk is in charge of restocking shelves and the other is in charge of counting all the money drawers, a pay difference is justifiable.

Working conditions. This refers to two factors: physical surroundings like temperature and ventilation, and hazards. If two people work on an assembly line in the same conditions day in and day out and perform the same job, they deserve equal pay. But if one worker is assembling a product in an air-conditioned room with high ceilings and has a place to sit while the other person is assembling the same product but doing so by standing in a room with no AC and no place to stretch due to low-hanging objects, the latter has grounds for more pay.

Establishment. According to the EEOC, "An establishment is a distinct physical place of business rather than an entire business or enterprise consisting of several places of business." If two people are in their first year of work at two different law firms, their employers are not required to give them the same compensation. Because while they are both lawyers and their industries and expectations are similar, their establishments are not.

What does the EPA cover?

The Equal Pay Act covers all forms of pay and compensation including salary, overtime, bonuses, stock options, life insurance, benefits vacation, holiday pay, and allowances and accommodations like gas, travel, and hotel expenses. If there is an inequality in wages between a male employee and a female employee, the employer cannot reduce the wages to equalize it; he must increase the wage of the person who is making less. However, pay differentials are permitted when they are based on affirmative defenses like seniority, merit, quality of production, or any factor other than sex, but it is the employer’s burden to prove when these defenses apply.

Who else is fighting for women?

In addition to the EEOC and its implementation and regulation of the EPA, who else is making women a priority? (Hint: not the 2016 presidential candidates. When they do talk about pay disparity, it’s usually as a quick aside or an attack on another candidate, not because they’re making any strong attempts to correct it.)

Fortunately, in addition to the EEOC and Beyonce, some state legislators and President Obama are doing their due diligence for women.

California. The state’s wage equality bill SB 358 was signed, sealed, and delivered in October 2015, protecting employees from receiving retaliation who inquire about or discuss pay differences and mandating employers to value and pay work equally for both genders. Essentially, the new law means more of a check and balance system between employers and employees and more employees taking their bosses to court if they don’t comply.

State legislators. Legislators in approximately 24 states – from Alaska to Kansas – last week introduced bills to close the gender wage gap and provide stronger wage protections for women than those available under federal law. Lawmakers say the biggest challenges they face are getting their colleagues – and working women – to admit there is a problem.

President Obama. Last week, the Obama administration announced executive action that would require large companies (100 employees or more) to report to the federal government how much they pay their employees by gender, race, and ethnicity. Hopefully this action will help hold businesses and employers more accountable and bring poor business practices – like racist and sexist pay discrimination – to light. (Obama is a huge proprietor for women receiving equal pay: The very first bill he signed into law was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which extended the time period in which claimants can file discrimination claims, allowing victims — i.e. women — to seek redress where they otherwise could not. In 2010, he also established the National Equal Pay Task Force to improve the enforcement of equal pay laws.)

Unfortunately, while there are laws prohibiting pay disparity, there is little enforcement on state and local levels. Even worse, companies don’t always adhere to equal pay regulations and laws and their underpaid workers don’t know they’re being unjustly compensated, don’t know their rights, don’t want to do anything about it, or can’t afford to.

Yes, companies need to change; they need to evolve and diversify and train hiring managers more properly, but that will only happen when men and women take a stand. Because if things don’t change on a local grassroots level – workplace by workplace – and more women (and men) don’t demand same pay for same work, there will never be changes in the state and federal governments because there won’t have to be. If women don’t make women a priority, why would the federal government?

What can women do right now?

Stand up for yourself. If you are being unjustly paid compared to a colleague, file a claim. According to The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), virtually all employers are subject to the Equal Pay Act, and under the EPA, "an employee has within two years of the alleged unlawful compensation practice, or if the employer’s violation was willful, three years, to go directly to court or to the EEOC. An employee alleging a violation of the EPA is not required to file an EEOC charge but may go directly to court." It’s also smart to talk to a lawyer and make sure you know and understand both your state and company rights.

Get involved. Vote in your federal, state, and local elections - let it be known that you only support those who support women aka not Trump. Tweet your Congressman, and let him know you want #fairpay. You can also get involved by joining Equal Pay Day campaigns or WAGE clubs.

Openly discuss salary. There’s a good chance you’re making shamefully less money than your male colleague, but won’t know unless you talk about it. Talk to your coworkers to see where you fall on the salary line. Sites like GetRaised can also help you start the discussion, especially with your boss. While the site was designed to help people get raises, it first helps people find out if they’re underpaid by comparing their pay to others in the same market, location, and experience level.

Download an app. Here’s Obama again, winning my heart. A few years ago, the Department of Labor and the National Equal Pay Task Force asked software developers to create an app to educate users about the pay gap and provide tools to combat it. It’s called Aequitas (it’s both iPhone and iPad accessible), and it provides users with current wage data, EPA information, interview, resume, and negotiation tools and connects to equal pay-related social networks and discussions.

Get educated. Read, read, and read some more! There is a wealth of knowledge out there about equal pay and your rights as an American worker, regardless of gender, sex, race, age, or disability, and it is vital that you learn all you can to better equip yourself for your current job and future jobs.

I love singing anything you can do, I can do better to every Tom, Dick, and Harry I meet, but not when except make money supersedes it. Regardless of your gender, race, political affiliation, or religion, let’s make 2016 the year of women. We deserve equal pay; we bust our butts in school, work, home, and play, and we deserve to make the same as men for doing the same work. This year – in our voting booths, workplaces, town halls, homes, and communities – let’s make women a priority so the rest of the nation and world can as well.

Image: Dell Inc.