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Progress deferred on equal pay for women

The first bill signed by a president often foretells the future of his term. President Clinton catalyzed his time in office by enacting the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, one of several labor-related stands he took. In his first two days in office, President George W. Bush thwarted federal money going to foreign groups who promoted abortion, a foreshadowing of socially conservative actions he would later take.

Then there was President Obama, who, to my delight, made a clear statement by signing into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, a law that expanded the filing period for pay discrimination lawsuits. President Obama remarked on January 29, 2009 at the law's signing, "Equal pay is by no means just a women's issue--it's a family issue....In this economy, when so many folks are already working harder for less and struggling to get by, the last thing they can afford is losing part of each month's paycheck to simple and plain discrimination."

While I may have whooped at seeing critical history unfold early last year, recently I find myself dubious. Progress created by the Ledbetter Act was hamstrung last month by the failed passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. The National Organization for Women explains that the act would have deterred wage discrimination by diminishing workarounds in the law and by minimizing retaliation against workers who disclose their wages. The bill also permits women to receive the same remedies in court for pay discrimination as those subjected to discrimination based on race or national origin. The Paycheck Fairness Act would sanction the establishment of a grant program to teach women and girls how to earn what they're worth, while improving guidelines on the collection and publication of wage discrimination information and research.

Given that there's not a single state where women are level with men in terms of compensation, I'd like to hear the suggestions of those who voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act. Time and again we read about the dearth of women in top ranks, lack of pay equity, and the molasses-slow rate of change. In fact, a recent study of the S&P 100 conducted by Calvert Investments revealed that 92 of the 100 CEOs were Caucasian males. And within the S&P, women make up approximately 18 percent of director positions, but represent only 8.4 percent of the highest-paid positions within the same group of companies.

It's outright denial to assume these numbers will tidily fix themselves. Do those who voted against the act just not care? Do they not see that a majority of their own mothers, daughters, sisters and wives are getting taken? Do they think each company will 'solve' the problem individually?

Expecting big business to behave well is one part of the puzzle. But we're all aware that culture change in corporate America takes timeā€•and that real levels of commitment vary wildly. For those afraid that another law bolsters an already litigious society, the argument is a fair one, except that a civil right isn't superfluous. Laws, however imperfect, send a clear message about unacceptable versus acceptable treatment. They also act as a catalyst. Would schools have ultimately become desegregated without the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Most likely. But rather than society pushing a boulder of change up a mountain, the landmark law picked the boulder up and moved it to the other side.

Laws like the Paycheck Fairness Act are not a panacea. After all, look at how well the Equal Pay Act of 1963 has protected minority groups from unfair pay. But in a country that prides itself on protecting the interests of those on unequal footing, we have work to do. Women are not some special interest segment; we're half the labor population. And we're essentially being told, "Your work is worth less."

By Selena Rezvani

 |  December 3, 2010; 3:38 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Political leadership , Presidential leadership , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

The positive and common sense approach would be to resolve loop holes and move forward. At least that might be a consideration by "forward looking" people.

I'm more shocked however by the seemingly low concern level from female voters and lobbyists.

Posted by: educ8er | December 9, 2010 1:30 PM
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