The Equal Pay Act passed over 60 years ago. So, why do women still make less than men?

More than six decades after the U.S. banned gender-based pay discrimination, American employers continue to pay women less than men.

The Equal Pay Act, a federal law prohibiting pay discrimination, was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy on June 10, 1963, addressing what he called the "unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job." Yet pay parity is still far from reality for working women.

For every dollar men earn today, women across the board earn 78 cents, according to US Census Bureau data analysis by the National Partnership for Women & Families. The data crunching included full-time and part-time workers and found that disparities were even wider for women of color. The disparities also exist for LGBTQ+ people and women of all backgrounds in leadership roles, according to the Human Rights Campaign and a watchdog report to Congress, respectively.

The gender pay gap hasn't shrunk much in the past two decades for a few reasons, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. A separate survey from the nonpartisan think tanks shows half of American adults – a majority of them women – agree that women and men are treated differently by employers.

Key factors sustaining the gender wage gap are workplace harassment, the lack of protection for parents and caregivers, segregation of men and women into different job types, and women entering the workplace after a history of earning lower or unequal wages, said Deborah Vagins, campaign director for the civil rights nonprofit Equal Rights Advocates and director of the national campaign Equal Pay Today.

"On average, women employed in the United States lose a combined total of more than $1.6 trillion every year due to the wage gap," according to a report from the National Partnership for Women and Families. "Families, businesses and the economy suffer as a result."

Even in industries they dominate Women still don't get the top jobs or pay

What is the Equal Pay Act?

The Equal Pay Act prohibits employers from paying women less than their male counterparts for the same job. President John F. Kennedy signed The Equal Pay Act into law as part of his New Frontier Program, which included several reforms on social issues.

"This act represents many years of effort by labor, management, and several private organizations unassociated with labor or management, to call attention to the unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job," Kennedy said of the new law at the time.

Many states enacted their own laws on pay equity. The federal law underwent several revisions over the years.

The law offered women the means to sue if they'd been paid less than men for the same job and thousands did. In one high-profile U.S. Supreme Court case, Lily Ledbetter sued Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. After working as a manager for nearly two decades, Ledbetter learned she was being paid significantly less than her male colleagues. A majority of five on the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Goodyear saying she had not filed her complaint in time.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had overseen hundreds of gender discrimination cases as a lawyer, railed against her colleagues in her dissent, inspiring advocates and ultimately Congress to strengthen equal pay protections.

President Barack Obama enacted the resulting Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, which amended the Equal Pay Act's definition of unlawful employment practice, allowing people to sue for discriminatory wages.

Lilly Ledbetter receives a pen from President Barack Obama after he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, a decade after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg urged Congress to fix what she said was the Supreme Court's mistake.
Lilly Ledbetter receives a pen from President Barack Obama after he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, a decade after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg urged Congress to fix what she said was the Supreme Court's mistake.

International Women's Day 2023 Marks another year without shrinking the gender pay gap

Why are women paid less than men?

There are various explanations for why women earn less than men for the same labor, experts say. Some are persistent and some are new. They include:

  • A continuing gender bias: About 61% of women said workplace discrimination was a major reason for the gap, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center.

  • Occupational segregation, in which women are hired for and segregated into lower-paying jobs than men: Women are more present in higher-paying jobs that were traditionally dominated by men, including professional and managerial positions, but the Pew report found that "women as a whole continue to be overrepresented in lower-paying occupations relative to their share of the workforce."

  • Overrepresentation in minimum-wage and sub-minimum wage jobs: Most people who would benefit from the minimum wage being raised are women and women are overrepresented in low-wage jobs and jobs that rely on tips, according to a 2021 report from the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute.

  • Situations that prevent women from economic mobility: Many jobs don't offer enough protections for caregivers, including paid leave. And women may face workplace harassment that might make them leave the workplace, and possibly take a lower paying job where they won't face abuse, Vagins, of Equal Rights Advocates, said.

What's next?

For decades, people have mobilized for pay equity and stronger workplace protections for women, and these efforts continue.

Advocates have sought federal legislation to close the loopholes in the Equal Pay Act and bridge the pay gap. One such measure, the Paycheck Fairness Act, has stalled in Congress.

Some states are experimenting with ways to close the gap, including wage transparency laws that require employers to post pay ranges for jobs and laws that bar employers from asking people about their prior salary history.

Contact Kayla Jimenez at kjimenez@usatoday.com. Follow her on X at @kaylajjimenez.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Over 60 years after Equal Pay Act, why the gender pay gap persists