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50th Anniversary of Equal Pay Act Reminds Us How Far We Have to Go

Trafalgar Square 1000 women and girls went on a march demonstrating for equal pay with men

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An opinion piece in this weekend’s New York Times sheds light on how much ground remains to be covered in the fight for equal rights (and pay) at work.

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act (signed in 1963) is a bittersweet affair for Stephanie Coontz, a teacher at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash:

There is no denying that we have made great progress toward gender equality. Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which was signed into law on June 10, 1963. At that time, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women earned less than 60 percent of what men made. According to Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist, a female college graduate at that time, working full time year round, made less than the average male high school graduate.

Today women earn about 80 percent of what men make for full-time work, and education now outweighs gender as a determinant of wage rates. Because women now earn the majority of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, we can expect the wage gap to narrow further in the future.

But it’s not all good news, according to a report released Friday by the Council on Contemporary Families, of which I am co-chairwoman. It is a collection of papers assessing the progress toward gender equity in the last half-century. In one, by the economist Heidi Shierholz, we learn that more than a quarter of the convergence in wages has been a result of men’s wage losses rather than women’s wage gains. Even so, according to the economist Stephanie Seguino, the remaining wage gap means that on average, a woman has to work 52 years to earn what a man makes in 40 years. And at every educational level, women continue to earn less than men with the same credentials.

New calculations by the sociologist Leslie McCall show that most of the recent wage progress for women has occurred in the top 20 percent of earners (although they remain greatly underrepresented in top corporate leadership positions, as the Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg reminds us).

Much of the progress that women have made in income parity has gone to childless women. Motherhood, writes the sociologist Joya Misra, is now a greater predictor of wage inequality than gender in the United States. According to her research, conducted with Michelle Budig at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, motherhood imposes about twice the earning penalty in the United States compared with what women face in countries that have expansive publicly financed child care systems.

RELATED: This morning, NPR devoted a segment the anniversary of the Equal Pay Act and the ongoing need for progress.


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