Dollars & Sense: Why Equal Gender Pay Matters

Cherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Analysis I May 24th, 2013

The general discourse regarding equal pay is drastically short-sighted and misses key points that meld together to form a concise and logical argument, which explains why equal gender pay makes "sense". The reality is that women are also breadwinners, whose incomes are equally depended upon to sustain their households, perhaps more so than men, when one considers the escalation of female-led single-parent households. A 2011 McKinsey study found that a modest increase in women's overall share of labor in the United States, where women went from holding 37 percent of all jobs to nearly 48 percent over the past 40 years-accounting for nearly one-quarter of the current GDP. [1] Thus, the most simplistic argument is that equal pay is imperative, because unfair pay practices make it particularly harder for families who rely on the earnings, and additional household income amassed by women. This is especially true during times of economic hardship, such as the present recession, which has seen the United States' economy chances for recovery consistently thwarted by Republican filibustering, opposition votes, and other antics; such as the manufactured debit ceiling crisis. Furthermore, the resultant credit score downgrade, spending cuts, sequestration, furlough days, and lack of consumer spending directly impact the job market; and help to undermine wage earners; particularly those who are underpaid.

We must move past the blatant attempts of a romanticize history, and the Conservatives' nostalgia for a pre-1960s America; where women were to primarily fulfill the role of housewife and homemaker. However, these idealistic "Stepford Wives," who managed the affairs of the home, also happened to be the same women who filled factory jobs, building weapons of war in the 1940s, and were the ones who also went out to work odds jobs during the Great Depression of the 1930s; all while earning less than men for the same work.

Now, in terms of women of color, particularly African American women, the vast majority have always worked outside the home; even when they were denied wages, let alone their freedom. On a global scale, especially in developing nations, women share an equal burden of work with men, while still earning drastically smaller and diminishing salaries. An unfortunate circumstance of this unequal gender pay is that women (and/or girls) may be deemed a costly liability; and when financial resources are scarce, families will sacrifice their daughter's bodies (sex trafficking) for increased income, marry them off while quite young, or even withhold an education, and opportunities for economic mobility; so that the males of the family, those deemed to be "high" wage earners, can take full advantage of and benefit from those opportunities. Thus, unequal gender pay is inherently discriminatory and has resounding ramifications that impact many facets of a woman's life, as well as that of their families - thus pointing to the central problem with the conventional discussion on equal gender pay, the propensity to make the topic a marginalized women's issue.

Marginalizing women's issues, such as reproductive rights and equal pay, de-emphasizes their centrality in women's lives, and makes it feasible to make blanketed and ignorant statements, such as "there is no gender gap. Men and women just do different jobs, and thus, receive different pay accordingly;" a common argument made against equal gender pay. This argument is particularly offensive in its assumption that women are lacking in valuable skill sets when compared to men. Moreover, this assumption could not be further from the truth. For example, women are steadily becoming the majority on college and university campuses, and are earning more advanced degrees, including those in the STEM fields; yet the pay gap hasn't closed for these specialized professions. Over their careers, female doctors reportedly earn $350K less than men, while female CEOs earn 69 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, and female lawyers or even constructions workers could expect to earn thousands of dollars less than their male peers. [2]


The 1963 Equal Pay Act (EPA) made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to men and women who perform substantially equal work. However, as previously pointed out, the disparities in pay have persisted, so much so that Lilly Ledbetter, an Alabama native who worked at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company plant for 19 years, learned upon retirement from her position as a supervisor that she had been paid far less than her male counterparts, and decided to sue the company for lost wages. Her case made it to and was eventually dismissed by the (Conservative & Corporate-friendly) Supreme Court, only to later become the first bill signed into law by President Obama when he took office in 2009. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act expands worker's rights to sue in case of unequal pay. While signing the bill, President Obama announced, "It is fitting that the very first bill I sign -- be the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. We are upholding one of the nation's first principles: that we are all created equal and each deserves a chance to pursue our own version of happiness."

Ironically, the sentiments expressed by President Obama, in his exalting of the "principles" established by the nation's "founding fathers," were in reference to "principles" that were only established for and applicable to land-holding, white males. However, many years of strife, protest, and legislation have attempted to extend the creed of equality and pursuit of happiness to all citizens. Therefore, the Lilly Ledbetter Act is not enough to help achieve gender-based economic equality. In February 2013, Representative Rose DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MO) introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act (S.84, H.R.377), which sets out to strengthen the 1963 Equal Pay Act by ensuring effective protection against sex-based discrimination and barring retaliation against workers who voluntarily discuss or disclose their wages. The bill has gained formal support from a host of organizations that promote economic opportunity for women. Amongst this vast list of organizations are:

American Association of University Women

Feminist Majority

National Council of Women's Organizations

National Congress of Black Women

National Committee on Pay Equity

National Organization for Women

Women's Social Policy & Research Center

Ultimately, the Paycheck Fairness Act may just serve as another critical step that is needed to bring about social change in gender dynamics. Like other civil rights legislation (as equal gender pay is a public health issue, civil rights issue, and human rights issue), a series of laws may have to be passed to assure that final goal. The problem is that, while awaiting this slow legal process, women and their families have to live with the current reality and impact of economic inequity. And for women of color, the burden of racial discrimination helps to create additional stifling challenges. For example, the African American unemployment rate remains disproportionately higher than Caucasians. Consequently, African American women, when compared to Caucasian women, are more likely to be removed from the workforce or have mates who are removed from the workforce, making the income that they are able to earn extremely important. In contrast, Caucasian women are likely to have mates who are the highest wage-earners overall. While 8 percent of white women were unemployed as the main household earner from 2008 to 2010, this number was 25 percent for African American women and 22 percent for Latina women in the same period. [3]

Progress vs. Reality

Sure, women have made great strides and have become an integral part of the workforce while legislation (Equal Pay Act and Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) has been passed to reinforce these efforts. However, the problem persists, with the greatest factor being the societal attitude that equal gender pay is just a "women's issue." Women have not made extremely significant economic progress, when compared to men, since the advent of the feminist movement which began nearly fifty years ago. In the United States, on average, women make just $0.77 for every $1 made by men. [4] While African American women are earning $0.64, and Latinas $0.55, for every dollar earned by a Caucasian man. [5]

In 1963, women made 59 cents for every dollar a man made. Fifty years later, women have secured 18 cents more for themselves. Thus, the reality is that when it comes to women's pay, progress has been slow. According to the 2010 Census, out of the 265 recognized industries, women only out-earned men in the "service worker" category, where they earned $1.02 for every $1 earned by their male counterparts. [6]

Social Gradient

The World Health Organization defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." This broad definition helps to illustrate the correlation between the issue of pay equity and health. In other words, there is a social gradient that exists, which shows that the lower an individual's socioeconomic position, the worse her or his health will be. The social gradient shows that, within the built environment, there is a direct relationship between higher wages and access to health insurance, health services, and favorable living conditions. Hence, pay equity is certainly a pressing global public health issue. A vast number of health disparities and epidemics can be attributed to this social gradient; whether it be illnesses due to waterborne diseases, due to the inability to afford access to a clean water supply; or the higher rates of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes in low income urban centers, rural, and immigrant communities due to the inability to afford healthier food options or transportation to areas with full service grocery stores. The fact that women continue to earn reduced wages in comparison to men helps to ensure that they are more readily to be negatively impacted along the social gradient. Furthermore, in considering economic structuralism, socioeconomic status may be considered the central determinant of health status with the implication that poverty itself is the major barrier to well-being.

Reproductive Rights & Economic Freedom

The harsh reality is that women, particularly those in developed nations, spend a good portion of their lives (perhaps a good 25 years) trying not to get pregnant. Their wages are used to pay for a variety of contraception, whether it's birth control, condoms, or even surgical IUDs. As Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student made famous as the target of a verbal attack by Conservative blowhard Rush Limbaugh, points out, contraception can be a financial burden to women. However, the alternative (pregnancy or multiple pregnancies) proves to be an even greater cost, burden, and possible barrier for social mobility. In fact, during the Great Depression, despite the Comstock Laws which made it difficult to get legal contraception, and while abortion remained illegal, fertility ratios decreased significantly. About 25 to 40 percent of all pregnancies were reportedly terminated in the 1930s. [7] Birth rates did not rise until the 1950s "Baby Boom," roughly twenty years later, during the end of a period of war and economic prosperity.

Overall, reproductive rights and access to effective means of controlling fertility helps to ensure the economic freedom of women. Fewer pregnancies have reduced the risk of childbearing deaths and complications, allowed women to readily pursue an education, and reduced the amount of time they are outside of the job market, and hence earning less. This economic freedom is also a significant factor in terms of intimate partner violence. In that, many women stay or return to these violent situations because they cannot afford or believe they cannot afford to live independently (and take care of their families) away from their abusers. This is why substantial pay is critical for women, in that it allows women to be independent.


The plethora of examples that help to frame pay inequity as a civil-and-human rights issues, and a matter of great public health concern, also help to explain why and how enacting legislation and changing the social discourse on the matter of pay equality makes sense, and benefits society as a whole. The reality is that women have become a significant part of the global workforce, with families greatly depending on the income they contribute to the household. Thus, paying women diminished wages directly impacts their families and their personal chances for social advancement. The following sentiments, shared by the United Nations Population Fund, points out how gender inequality negatively impacts communities and nations by stagnating development and reducing economic productivity: "Economic growth and social equality should go hand in hand. Gender inequality holds back growth of individuals, development of countries, and the evolution of societies, to the disadvantage of men and women."[8] In addition, the gender-based pay gap brings about reduced pensions and diminished Social Security benefits for women, which makes it more difficult for them to save for and secure their retirements and economic independence for the long run.


[1] Barsh J., Yee L. Unlocking the full potential of women in the U.S. economy. McKinsey & Company. 2011; Retrieved from

[2] Garafalo P. Why Lilly Ledbetter wasn't enough: The facts about the persistent pay gap. Think Progress. 2013; Retrieved from

[3] Hayes J. Hartmann H. Women and men living on the edge: Economic insecurity after the great recession. Institute for Women Policy Research. 2011. Washington, DC.

[4] The National Women's Law Center. Insecure & unequal: Poverty and income among women and families, 2000 - 2011. 2012. Retrieved from

[5] Ibid

[6] Bass F. Shining shoes only way wall street women out earn men. Bloomberg Report. 2012. Retrieved from

[7] Sollinger, R. Reproductive rights: What everyone needs to know. Oxford University Press. 2013. Oxford, UK.

[8] Women and Children: The double dividend of gender equality. The United Nations Children Fund. New York, New York. 1-160.