by Heidi Hartmann
The economic progress women have made in the past five decades is enormous. Women have entered many occupations that had been virtually closed to them, now earn more over their lifetimes, and contribute more to family income and to the economy as a whole than ever before.
But there is still a long way to go. Despite the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which makes it easier for women to sue for equal pay—avoiding a similar plight as the bill’s namesake, when she learned she was earning vastly unequal pay near the end of her career—progress toward closing the pay gap has stagnated. Since 2000, the wage ratio has remained around 76.5 percent. If trends of the past five decades are projected forward, it will take almost another five decades—until 2058—for women to reach pay equity.
Our researchers at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research have shown that if women received pay equal to comparable men, the poverty rate of all working women and their families would fall by half, from 8.1 percent to 3.9 percent. The number of women affected is substantial: 42.5 million working women—about 60 percent of all working women—would receive a pay increase, with the average annual pay increase estimated at $6,251 (including $0 amounts for those who got no raise). Moreover, paying women the same as comparable men would have added an additional $448 billion (equivalent to almost 3 percent of GDP) to the economy in 2012, about the equivalent of adding another state the size of Virginia to the nation.
Raising the minimum wage has been estimated to have a similarly dramatic effect on growing the economy and reducing poverty, especially among women. In a recent research paper, David Cooper at EPI calculates that 27.8 million workers—nearly a fifth of working Americans—would be directly and indirectly affected by an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, across the three years 2014 -2016. These pay increases, Cooper estimated, would result in the GDP increasing by 0.3 percent ($22 billion). Moreover, 85,000 new jobs would be created by the additional spending power of low-wage workers.
Cooper shows that women would constitute 55 percent of the workers affected directly and indirectly by the increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour: 15.3 million women would receive a pay increase. The typical minimum wage worker is 35 years of age and provides half her or his family income. Nearly one-fifth of American children have at least one parent whose earnings would be raised by an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Moreover, unpublished EPI data shows that 2.3 million single mothers, or nearly one-third of all working single mothers, would be directly and indirectly affected by the increase in the federal minimum wage.
The members present at the hearing were eager to hear about the importance of eliminating the gender pay gap and increasing the minimum wage, but they were also intensely interested in the issue of pay secrecy. Lilly Ledbetter explained that she had been told when hired that if she so much as discussed her pay with anyone she would be immediately let go. The members wanted to know how many other people might be affected by pay secrecy. A survey conducted by IWPR in 2010 was the first and (so far as we know), the only survey to look into pay secrecy. The survey found that, like Ledbetter, many workers do not know what their colleagues are being paid and are unlikely to be able to find out. More than 60 percent (62 percent of women, 60 percent of men) of private-sector workers responded that discussing pay at work is either strongly discouraged or prohibited. By contrast, only 18 percent of female public-sector workers and 11 percent of male public-sector workers reported being discouraged from discussing pay rates or fearing penalties for doing so, and the gender wage gap is much smaller in the public-sector than in the private-sector.
Public policies can combat both unequal pay and low minimum wages. More than half of the states have made pay adjustments in their civil service systems that raise the pay of female-dominated jobs. Firms that contract with local and state governments and the federal government to provide goods and services can be required to meet standards, such as non-retaliation toward workers who share pay information or a higher minimum wage (as President Obama said in the State of the Union speech that he would require of federal contractors), or report their gender wage ratios within job categories, as has been done in New Mexico for state contractors.
The stall in the economic progress of women in the past decade, coupled with the large number of women and families who would benefit from increases in women’s earnings resulting from stronger equal pay remedies and a higher federal minimum wage, make the case that implementing new laws and public policies is urgent. Paying women equally and raising the minimum wage would significantly reduce poverty and boost the growth of the U.S. economy.
To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org