Gender pay-inequity hurts overall economy

By Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt

For nearly 20 years, Lilly Ledbetter went to work as a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire plant in Alabama.  She worked hard.  She played by the rules.  She did her job.

And yet over two decades, she was paid less than male supervisors who performed substantially similar work.  In an act repugnant to the spirit of America, she was continually discriminated against during her career — paid less because she was a woman.

When she sued Goodyear, the Supreme Court held her claim wasn’t timely, a legal technicality because she hadn’t discovered the pay discrimination and sued within the statute of limitations.  Legislation was quickly introduced in Congress to correct this technicality.

And so, three years ago, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  In his State of the Union last month, President Obama said of that very first piece of legislation — “You see, an economy built to last is one where we encourage the talent and ingenuity of every person in this country.  That means women should earn equal pay for equal work.”

What a simple concept — a woman should earn equal pay for equal work.  And yet, pay equity and the wage gap continue to be a serious problem both nationally and here in New Jersey, despite the Ledbetter act and federal measures barring pay discrimination going back as early as 1963.

A 2010 report from the U.S. Census Bureau reported that for every dollar a man earned, a woman only earned 77 cents for equal work production.

As women get older, the gap widens.  The National Women’s Law Center reports that when women start working — between ages 15 and 24 — the wage gap is relatively small.  Yet by the time they start to reach the critical years before retirement, ages 45 to 64, women earn only 71 percent of what men do.

This disparity has a staggering impact on New Jersey’s economy.  A 2009 Census Bureau report and Department of Labor statistics estimate that full-time working women lose approximately $15.8 billion annually in New Jersey due to the wage gap.

No, that’s not a misprint – $15.8 billion every year.

When nearly two-thirds of families rely on a woman’s wages for financial security, this is a serious problem.  There are so many families in our state that are held together by single mothers — working tirelessly as the sole breadwinners for their families while raising their kids alone.  There are so many families who, despite having two incomes, are struggling to make ends meet under the real pressures of this economy.

And the wage gap is widest where you might not expect it.  Women with a bachelor’s degree earn less than their male colleagues just one year out of college, with this disparity widening substantially 10 years after graduation.  

We don’t charge women less tuition.  Why should they earn less in their first year out of college despite comparable qualifications?

What message does this send to young girls growing up today?  I would like to see my daughter, and the daughters of countless New Jersey families, enter the workforce knowing their work is valued through equitable compensation.

Clearly, one approach we can take to help all of our middle- and working-class families in New Jersey is addressing this $15.8 billion annual wage gap.  Each dollar we reduce that gap is a dollar that goes to help our struggling families. 

There are some people who say, “That’s just the market.  We should just leave it alone.  If we start trying to address this true injustice, we’ll end up burdening the economy with red tape.”  I disagree.  I say a rising tide lifts all boats.

New Jersey’s women make up over 50 percent of students in higher education.  Women in our workforce are highly educated, hard-working, and integral members of our communities.  Simply put, the devastating impact of this disparity on New Jersey’s economy demands that we tackle this challenge head-on.

Recently, the Assembly Women and Children Committee devoted its inaugural hearing to pay equity and the wage gap.  As Chairwoman of this committee, I am committed to finding policy solutions to this problem and working to strengthen laws that support New Jersey’s women.  President Obama had it right — when we encourage and empower all of our citizens to succeed economically, our families and communities are strengthened.

Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, (D-6), Camden, chairs the Assembly Women and Children Committee in the New Jersey General Assembly.