Equal Pay for Equal Work: An International Issue – The United States Model Revisited

June 19, 2000

In the decades-long quest for equality of women in the workplace, one of the most frequently used and most respected measures of success has been the ability of women to earn equal pay for equal work in the marketplace.  Some countries such as the United States have implemented statutory equal pay for equal work regimes to accelerate the  process of equalization.  The issue which now arises in whether such equal pay laws accomplish their goals, and whether they are in fact enough to attain full equalization of pay for equal work based on gender.

If such statutory regimes fail to bring about equal pay for women, the consequences are detrimental not just to women but to society as a whole.  The most direct result is diminished lifetime earnings for women that lead to inadequate resources to meet personal and family needs – especially for those families for whom the woman is the sole wage earner.  A model for lifetime earnings loss calculation, developed by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, shows for instance that a 25-year old woman who works full-time, year-round for 40 years will earn U.S.$523,000 less than the average 25-year old man, if current wage patterns continue.  Perhaps even more importantly, one of the key results of the wage gap is that more women than men live in poverty: females make up 70% of the more than 1 billion who live at poverty level.  The further results of pay inequity are diminished self-esteem and confidence and a negative self- identity of women who see themselves as less worthy than male counterparts who receive more pay for equal work.  It is these patterns and consequences which equal pay for equal work laws were enacted to address, and yet the evidence shows that they have not fully succeeded.

This paper will briefly describe the worldwide phenomenon of inequities in pay for women and in particular summarize the status of pay for women in the U.S. marketplace both currently and prior to the adoption of the U.S. equal pay for equal work law.  It will go on to describe the U.S. law, its history and purposes, and then will summarize both the successes and failures in the U.S. attempt to attain equal pay for equal work based on gender.

In the concluding sections of the paper some of the reasons for the failure to fully reach the goal of equal pay for equal work will be discussed, along with future trends in the workplace and how these trends may impact women and their continuing efforts to obtain pay equity.

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