Skip to main content

Why unequal pay persists

By Fatima Goss Graves and Arjun Sethi, Special to CNN
updated 8:59 AM EST, Wed November 6, 2013
Sen. Al Franken discusses the Paycheck Fairness Act accompanied by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, left, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
Sen. Al Franken discusses the Paycheck Fairness Act accompanied by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, left, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many companies have secret pay practices: Discussing wages a firable offense
  • They say women who think they are paid less than men can't find out; some never suspect
  • Writers: Low-wage women workers most likely keep quiet, live with pay discrimination
  • They back Paycheck Fairness Act, which would ban employer retaliation for discussing pay

Editor's note: Fatima Goss Graves is the vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center. Follow Fatima on Twitter @FGossGraves and the law center @nwlc. Arjun Sethi is an attorney in Washington and a frequent commentator on civil rights and social-justice related issues. Follow Arjun on Twitter @arjunsethi81

(CNN) -- Imagine this: You've toiled at a company for years and followed all the rules. You're productive, diligent, and respected by your peers. In short, you're a model employee. But the latest round of raises that have consumed the office leave you thinking that your male colleagues -- despite having the same job title -- make more than you.

You begin to suspect you're the victim of gender discrimination. So, you decide it's time to "lean in" and secure the equal pay you deserve -- 77 cents on the dollar, the nation's going rate, just won't cut it.

But when you take this information to your boss you're told that the company's pay practices are secret and you can be fired for discussing them.

Fatima Goss Graves
Fatima Goss Graves
Arjun Sethi
Arjun Sethi

Throughout America, countless women find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They suspect they're being denied equal pay, but have no way of confirming it. Or worse, they don't know they're being shortchanged because company policies prevent them from discussing their wages.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was passed to prohibit wage discrimination on the basis of sex and sought to ensure that women earn equal pay for equal work. Its purpose was clear: Eliminate the gender wage gap, which hurts women and families. But 50 years later, pay discrimination is alive and well. Gag rules that require employees to keep their pay secret perpetuate this inequity. It's time for our wages to get out from behind the secrecy paywall.

A majority of private sector workplaces in America prohibit or discourage employees from discussing their wages with co-workers. As a result, employees who mention what they earn are threatened with retaliation, including harassment, demotion, or termination.

Women who believe they're the victims of unequal pay face an impossible choice: Jeopardize their economic livelihood or suffer the indignity and economic consequences of discrimination. Low-wage women workers -- many of whom live paycheck to paycheck and are seen as replaceable by their employers -- are especially likely to choose silence and live with pay discrimination rather than risk their jobs.

Still others will have no clue that they are being paid less. Pay secrecy policies can keep women in the dark for years. Take Lilly Ledbetter, who worked as a supervisor at a Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama, for nearly two decades without knowing that she had been denied equal pay. Had it not been for an anonymous note, she would never have learned that she was earning substantially less than her male colleagues. Pay secrecy facilitated Goodyear's discrimination.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has exacerbated the problem. For decades, plaintiffs were typically afforded discovery, the opportunity to secure testimony and documents from their employer, before resolution of their claims. But in two deeply divided decisions, the Supreme Court recently abandoned that practice and now requires plaintiffs to provide more detailed information about the alleged discrimination before discovery.

This higher burden is nearly insurmountable for women alleging unequal pay. Because of pay secrecy, their complaints often begin with a strong hunch that can only be verified through corporate records and sworn statements. Denying them access to this basic information is tantamount to locking them out of the courthouse.

Unsurprisingly, workplaces that have abandoned punitive pay secrecy, like the federal government and many unionized workplaces, have been particularly effective in reducing the gender wage gap. Female federal workers are paid 89 cents, and unionized female workers 88 cents, for every dollar paid to men.

Economists have posited that more transparent workplaces will lead to greater worker satisfaction and productivity, while closed pay practices will lead to lower motivation and mistrust of management. Permitting workers to discuss their wages would also make managers more accountable.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, reintroduced in Congress, would prohibit retaliation against workers who discuss their wages. The legislation has been blocked, but if passed, would finally close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act. It would permit workers to compare notes and determine whether they're being paid fairly, without fear of retribution.

If the legislation continues to stall, President Obama can and should act. He can sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to abandon punitive pay secrecy and protect nearly 22% of the American workforce. Those refusing to comply would lose the government as a client.

And let's not let states off the hook. State laws can provide important protections against employer retaliation. In August, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a law banning retaliation against workers who inquire about salary. New Jersey joins states like Vermont, Colorado, Michigan and California in outlining explicit protections for workers seeking equal pay.

Justice Louis Brandeis famously said the best remedy for social and industrial disease was publicity and sunlight its most effective disinfectant. Fifty years after the Equal Pay Act, pay secrecy still masks discrimination. There is only one way to fight this darkness: light.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT