It’s Time for Working Women to Earn Equal Pay

Although the global recession has had a serious impact on working men and women alike, two new reports make clear that women in the United States and throughout the world have suffered most because of long-standing discrimination.

The findings come from two highly regarded sources ­ the United Nations' International Labour Organization (ILO), and the Center for American Progress (CAP). Above all, the reports show the critical need to combat the worldwide mistreatment of working women, especially in these times of economic distress. The initial blow of the recession was felt in work dominated by men, such as finance, manufacturing and construction. But the main impact has shifted to other areas of work, including service work, where women generally are dominant.

Nevertheless, as the CAP report notes, “Most of the jobs that have been lost have been lost by men, leaving millions of women and mothers to support their families.”

That's a rough task for many women. Though they're usually doing essentially the same work as men, or the equivalent of it, women earn substantially less than the men ­ internationally, 30 to 40 percent less, despite a narrowing of the gap in recent years. The gap is narrower within the United States, but even so, U.S. women average only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

The pay gaps exist in part because, as the ILO's Sara Elder says, “We still find many more women than men taking up low pay and precarious work, either because this is the only type of job made available or because they need to find something that allows them to balance work and family responsibilities. Men do not face these same constraints.”

And it may get worse for women, even after the recession ends, since we know from previous crises that female job-losers find it more difficult to return to work as economic recovery settles in. What's needed everywhere, of course, is equal treatment for working women ­ paying them the same as men doing comparable work and otherwise treating them the same.

In the United States, that would mean cracking down on the widespread violations of the 47-year-old Equal Pay Act that has never delivered its promise to guarantee women equal treatment on the job.

Better yet would be the passage — and strict enforcement — of the long stalled Paycheck Fairness Act. It would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act that have made it relatively easy for employers to discriminate against women in pay and other matters.

It's estimated that if U.S. women were granted equal pay, they could each earn as much as $2 million more over the whole of their working lives. Estimates also project that equal pay would reduce the number of families living in poverty by as much as half.

Probably the most essential reform aside from paycheck fairness would be, as the CAP report recommends, worldwide updating of basic labor standards “to recognize that most workers have family responsibilities and need predictable and flexible work schedules, family and medical leaves and paid sick days.” That would assure that women who stay employed to support their families won't end up unemployed because of 'family-work conflicts.'

At least in the United States, those and other reforms would likely win broad public support. A recent poll cited in the CAP report showed that “a large majority of Americans support new, more family-friendly workplace policies.” Eighty-five percent said “businesses that fail to adapt to needs of modern families risk losing good workers.”

And businesses that fail to adapt will be furthering the mistreatment of working women that's gone virtually unchecked for far too many years. No matter what the recession ­ or its end ­ brings, we will not have a truly healthy economy until working women are guaranteed their full rights.