The high cost of unequal pay

By Lisa Maatz I V.P. Government Relations, American Association of University Women

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The gender pay gap is real, and it hurts women and families. It’s not myth, it’s math. Did you know that in 2014, women working full time in the United States were paid on average just 79 percent of what men were paid? Even one year out of college, within the same major, field and hours worked, men already earn 7 percent more than women — and that gap almost doubles in 10 years even though women are more likely to earn a master’s degree.

But the pay gap is about more than just numbers. Real people experience serious financial and personal hardship as a result of this persistent discrimination, and working families and the entire economy suffer as a result.

Aileen Rizo, an American Association of University Women member and educator, realized she was a victim of the pay gap in 2012. While working at the Fresno County Office of Education in California, she learned that a male colleague was being paid $12,000 more per year than she received, despite doing the same work. Moreover, Rizo was hired four years before her colleague and had more experience, education and seniority. Employees in her office are paid on a 10-step scale and advance one step each year. The new male employee started on step nine. Rizo began at step one and had moved up one step per year. Feeling discouraged and thinking of the impact on her young daughters, Rizo attempted to remedy the situation internally. When that didn’t work, she filed a lawsuit. The suit is still pending, but in the meantime, the state of California took its own action to proactively address similar situations.

Although California state law already prohibited pay discrimination, lawmakers and advocates decided it was necessary to strengthen the equal pay law to protect women like Aileen Rizo. As of Oct. 6, the state has the strongest equal pay law in the nation. Equal pay advocates from AAUW and partner organizations worked tirelessly to develop and pass this law, but an important part of the work involved bringing unlikely partners to the table: The California Chamber of Commerce worked with us to craft bipartisan legislation that all sides agreed to, resulting in almost unanimous support from the California legislature.

Before the bill’s passage, California Chamber of Commerce Policy Advocate Jennifer Barrera noted that her organization and bill author Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson don’t see eye to eye on too many things, but that they both agree “employees who are similarly situated should receive the same rate of pay for performing substantially similar job duties.”

Passing a federal law would help protect everyone nationwide. But until federal laws get a much needed update, states must update their own laws to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work. If nearly every member of the California legislature could agree to this bill, as well as the California Chamber of Commerce, it’s past time for other states and Congress to protect women and families by ensuring equal pay for equal work.