50 Years Later: Looking at the Equal Pay Act Then and Now

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law. Yet 50 years later, women earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, and Congress has twice rejected the Paycheck Fairness Act. So, what gives? Click on for a primer on the wage gap and the legislature that has attempted to fight it.

What is the Wage Gap?

The wage gap is a statistical indicator that’s used to measure the state of women’s earnings relative to men’s. The wage gap is expressed as a percentage and is calculated by dividing the median annual earnings for women by the median annual earnings for men.

When the Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963, the wage gap showed that women were paid 58 cents for every dollar earned by men. Today, the rate has improved, but is still very far from true equality. Women currently earn 77 cents for every dollar men are paid—and that stat is even worse for most minorities. The wage gap exists in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Image: the University of Salford on Flickr

Why Does the Wage Gap Exist?

Multiple theories exist that explain the wage gap. For example, studies show that women filled two-thirds of all minimum wage jobs in 2012. The states with the lowest minimum wages had the worst wage gaps. A National Women’s Law Center report concluded that raising the minimum wage would increase wages for workers at the bottom end of the spectrum and help to close the wage gap. Other theories point out that the wage gap doesn’t necessarily compare a male and a female co-worker doing the same job, but rather simply reflects the median earnings of all men and women—therefore dismissing factors like chosen industry, hours, and job characteristics. Even when different factors are held consistent, however, a few percentage points aren’t explained. Economist and advocates believe these are the product of discrimination, whether conscious or not.

What is the Equal Pay Act?

The Equal Pay Act can be seen as the first attempt to eliminate the wage gap. It is an historic bill signed into law 50 years ago that worked to eradicate salary discrimination based on gender at a time when women mostly worked menial jobs.

It asserts, “No employer having employees subject to any provisions of this section shall discriminate… 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.”

What's Before Congress Now?

Because the Equal Pay Act has arguably failed its purpose five decades later, the Paycheck Fairness Act was designed to serve as an update to the historic legislature, closing longstanding loopholes and strengthening incentives to prevent wage discrimination. It was first passed by Congress in January 2009, but although it seems completely common sense, the Paycheck Fairness Act has indeed been introduced into, and then rejected by Congress–twice. Most recently, on June 5, 2012, the act fell short of the 60 votes necessary to pass in Senate, with all Republicans opposing the bill. President Obama remains optimistic that with hard work, the bill can be passed. Here, read Elizabeth Warren’s eloquent and persuasive piece on why she is a proud co-sponsor of the act whose passage we still await.