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Happy 50th Birthday, Equal Pay Act: A Brief History and Future of the Gender Wage Gap

“Even in creative fields, such as book publishing, advertising, and journalism, where there was a pool of educated females, women were given menial jobs.”

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law — a historic bill that aimed to abolish wage discrimination on the basis of gender in an era when newspapers published separate job listings for men and women. It stated:

No employer having employees subject to any provisions of this section [section 206 of title 29 of the United States Code] shall discriminate, within any establishment in which such employees are employed, between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs[,] the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex.

In her fantastic book The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace (public library), which tells the untold story of the lawsuit that changed the modern workplace, Lynn Povich contextualizes the monumental role the act played in turning the tide on gender-based discrimination:

In just about every industry, “office work” for women meant secretarial jobs and typing pools. Even in creative fields, such as book publishing, advertising, and journalism, where there was a pool of educated females, women were given menial jobs. In the 1950s, full-time working women earned on average between fifty-nine and sixty-four cents for every dollar men earned in the same job. It wasn’t until the passage of the Equal Pay Act in June 1963 that it became illegal to pay women a lower rate for the same job. And there were very few professional women. Until around 1970, women comprised fewer than 10 percent of students in medical school, 4 percent of law school students, and only 3 percent of business school students.

Upon signing the Equal Pay Act, JFK remarked:

I am delighted today to approve the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits arbitrary discrimination against women in the payment of wages. This act represents many years of effort by labor, management, and several private organizations unassociated with labor or management, to call attention to the unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job. This measure adds to our laws another structure basic to democracy. It will add protection at the working place to the women, the same rights at the working place in a sense that they have enjoyed at the polling place.

While much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity — for the average woman worker earns only 60 percent of the average wage for men — this legislation is a significant step forward.

American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963.
Image: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs; courtesy JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

But for all its significance, the EPA was still crippled by the era’s gender stereotypes — for its first nine years, it didn’t extend to executive or even administrative-level jobs, thus rendering white-collar women professionals exempt from and unaffected by the new anti-discrimination policy. It wasn’t until 1972 — the same year that groundbreaking feminism magazine Ms. forever changed women’s visibility, that the Educational Amendment extended coverage to the executive class. In 2009, in the first signing of his presidency, Barack Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling on the statute of limitations on gender-unequal paychecks and holding each such paycheck as a new violation to the law.

So where are we today, half a century after the EPA’s passing? Not too far, it seems: The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that women’s wages have risen from 62% to 80% of men’s in the three decades following 1970, but there is still a palpable wage gap or, as some have argued, a job gap — even if it is smaller than myth suggests. Even though women are earning more higher education degrees, gender inequality in the workforce still exists. And yet, some critics are ringing the death toll on men’s income dominance, largely due to the tipping of the education scales:

What are we to make of all this? (Pete Seeger might have some thoughts.) At the end of the day, policy is only half the battle in winning the war on society’s most heartbreaking instances of gender inequality. When it comes to work, however much employment may be legislated, there might, just might, be greater gratification in finding our purpose and pursuing fulfilling work by defining our own success rather than being somebody’s employee.

Published June 10, 2013




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