Momentum Building toward Pay Equity: States are a Key Part of a Multi-Pronged Effort

February 7, 2019

By Kim Churches, the chief executive officer of the American Association of University Women.

We’ve been hearing the same grim story about the gender pay gap for far too long: Working women take home, on average, 20 percent less than working men—and the gap is even wider for women of color. While the median annual salary for American men working full time is $52,146, for women, it’s just $41,977.

In 2019, the fact that such an inequity still exists is nothing short of outrageous.

But I am an optimist, so I prefer to focus on the progress that’s being made to close the pay gap—and the good news is that we’re seeing a lot. Over the past few years, federal, state and local policymakers—as well as employers around the country—have taken concrete steps to help narrow the gap. And a roadmap is beginning to emerge that shows we can conquer this problem once and for all.

Some of the most exemplary work is happening in state capitols, where legislators are listening to women and their families and declaring that enough is enough. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, dozens of state legislatures proposed and enacted legislation addressing pay inequality, and in 2018 a whopping 40 states and Washington, D.C., offered legislative solutions to the gender pay gap, with six states successfully enacting new laws. These legislative solutions range from banning the use of salary history in the hiring process and ensuring that workers can discuss their salaries without the fear of retaliation, to establishing strong remedies so that employees who have been wronged can recover lost wages and employers who have violated the law are deterred from doing so again.

Such a high level of activity indicates that state officials understand that the pay gap is real and that they need to take action to close it. Already, in the early days of the 2019 state legislative sessions, over 30 states have introduced bills to combat the gender pay gap. These bills are sponsored by a diverse set of members on both sides of the aisle. If history repeats itself—and here at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) we are working hard to make this a reality—at least a handful of states will successfully pass legislation this year.

There are promising signs on other fronts, as well. Earlier this month, federal lawmakers introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act, a much-needed initiative to close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and add new provisions to stop pay discrimination. Every Democrat in both the House and Senate is an original co-sponsor of the bill, and it has Republican support in the House.

We’re also seeing momentum building in the private sector. More and more employers are abandoning policies requiring pay secrecy and proactively undertaking salary audits and other initiatives shown to help narrow the gap. They’re discovering that what’s good for American families is good for their business.

At AAUW, we’re working to support all these efforts. Our research reports—including The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap and Graduating to a Pay Gap—give policymakers and advocates the crucial information they need to understand and explain this pervasive problem. Our government relations staff is assisting elected officials by creating and helping to pass strong policies. And our members around the country are working within their communities to advance change.

AAUW is also working directly with individual women to help narrow their own pay gap: Our Work Smart salary negotiation workshops have equipped thousands of women across the country with tools and resources to help them negotiate for the salary and benefits they deserve. Last fall, we introduced Work Smart Online to expand the reach of the program. With partnerships already underway in a number of states and local areas, we’re ambitiously aiming to train millions more women nationwide by 2020.

The pay gap is a long-standing and complex problem, but there’s widespread agreement that the time has come to solve it. Not only is equal pay a matter of basic fairness, it is also good for everyone: According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, closing the pay gap would cut the poverty rate for working women in half and lift 2.5 million children out of poverty. It would strengthen families and communities, lead to economic growth, and foster global competitiveness.

We know what we need to do. Thanks to exemplary leadership on a state level, we have a good idea of how we can do it. Now let’s commit together to getting it done.

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