The good news about equal pay laws

Not much is going on in Washington D.C. to move the needle on pay equity, but there’s a lot happening on a state and local level. Kim Churches, CEO of the AAUW breaks it down.
Rally To Support Equal Pay For Equal Work
Elana Goodman joins with other protesters to ask that woman be given the chance to have equal pay as their male co-workers on March 14, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

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By Kim Churches

Over the past year, the call for equal pay has grown louder and more insistent. From soccer players to screenwriters, women across the country are loudly asserting their rights to be paid on par with men.

The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau showing that the gender wage gap hasn’t budged might make it seem as if the outcry is falling on deaf ears.

But in fact, there’s been real progress lately in the fight for gender pay equity in terms of policy, most of it on a state and local level. Around the country, legislators from across the political spectrum have been passing laws to chip away at a gender pay gap that has been stalled at about 82 cents on the dollar for far too long.

In 2019 alone, more than 30 states considered equal pay legislation, and 11 states—including Alabama—actually passed new and stronger laws. In all, 49 states and Puerto Rico now have equal pay laws. (Mississippi is the lone holdout.)

Salary history bans

One discernible new trend is toward salary history bans, which prohibit employers from asking job candidates what they were paid in previous jobs. These bans promise to help equalize earnings between men and women, because a woman’s new salary won’t be based on lower wages she may have earned in the past.

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Since Massachusetts became the first state to enact such legislation in 2016, 18 other states and 17 localities have followed suit. Others have yet to do so, but make no mistake: As such prohibitions become more common, the practice of asking job candidates what they earned in past jobs will become as egregious as asking them about their marital status, health conditions or sexual orientation.

A move toward pay transparency

Another trend is toward preventing employers from forbidding or punishing workers for sharing salary information with their colleagues. Open discussions about who earns what make it easier for women to learn if they’re being underpaid—and then push to make sure they get paid what they’re worth. Currently, 20 states have this provision.

Some states have gone even further in their equal pay laws: New Jersey and Minnesota, for example, require employers to collect pay data in an attempt to root out pay disparities.

And Colorado’s recently passed law requires that employers list salary ranges for every job posting, a practice that will better equip workers with the information they need to command a fair wage.

The momentum builds

While such reforms are certainly welcome, this piecemeal approach to closing the pay gap isn’t optimal. What’s really needed is passage of federal Paycheck Fairness Act to ensure that all Americans benefit from the same good policies and protections, regardless of where they live. Last March, that modest law—designed to close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963—was passed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. House of Representatives. It currently is awaiting action in the Senate

In the meantime, the movement at the state and local level is having an impact. There’s a groundswell of activity that employers – and federal lawmakers – can’t ignore. And as more states pass pay equity laws, national companies may be increasingly compelled to make these practices the norm across the board.

To be sure, the wage gap is long-standing and complex problem, and closing it completely will require much more than simple legislative steps. In addition to cracking down on discriminatory practices, we also need probe beneath the surface at the systemic and structural impediments to women’s economic security.

We need to we ensure that women aren’t disproportionately trapped in low-paying jobs – and, just as importantly, that female-dominated jobs don’t automatically pay less than jobs dominated by men. We need to find ways to put more women in the pipelines so they can move into leadership roles. We need to remove the barriers that are keeping girls and women from entering the STEM fields, which are among the fastest growing and highest paying jobs. And we need a fundamental shift in our societal paradigms to ensure parenthood and caregiving don’t entail an economic sacrifice that disproportionately falls on women’s shoulders.

Such changes are happening – albeit slowly. But if we keep the momentum moving forward these small incremental steps will turn into enormous strides. And women can feel confident that their demand for pay equity is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Kim Churches is the CEO of the American Association of University Women, a national non-partisan nonprofit that works to advance gender equity for women and girls through research, education and advocacy