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50 years after Equal Pay Act, women's hope for workplace parity hurt more by economy than law

Clockwise from top: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington; The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, Aug. 28, 1963, delivers the "I Have a Dream Speech"; President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on civil rights, Jun
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2013: Remarkable as it might seem, language in newspaper help wanted ads 50 years ago used to speak columns about unequal pay for women. Job listings were routinely segregated by sex with much of the high wage employment falling under the category that said “Help Wanted – Male.” Life for women in the job market began to change when President John F. Kennedy inked the landmark Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Symbolic in many ways at the time, the legislation was regarded in succeeding decades as a necessity in a changing America. Equal pay became a big issue as growing numbers of women not only entered the workforce but became the chief breadwinners in their families.

The National Women’s Law Center notes that the act requires employers to pay men and women the same amounts for substantially equal work. In 1963, according to the center, women were paid 59 cents for every dollar paid to men, a wage gap of 41 cents. In 2011, the group said women working full time generally earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Some argue that such comparisons aren’t always valid because they may overlook types of employment. Men, for example, might engage in blue collar work that might offer overtime, which might increase their weekly wages, while overtime might be unavailable to women in clerical and other office jobs.

In marking the 50th anniversary of the act, the National Equal Pay Task Force said pay equity in the workforce had yet to be achieved. But it called attention to significant progress made to widen the path to greater job opportunities and pay. The improvements include 71,000 women winning $26 million in back wages between 1964 and 1971. Progress has been spurred in part by court rulings. Notable cases include:

• In 1970, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co., that the jobs that were “substantially equal” but not “identical” fell under the scope of the Equal Pay Act. Among other things, that ruling meant companies couldn’t change job titles of female workers to pay them less.

• In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court in Corning Glass Works v. Brennan said companies couldn’t justify paying women less on the argument that they traditionally earned less under the “going market rate.” That ruling wiped out the claim that a wage differential was justified “simply because men would not work at the low rates paid women.”

• In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled in County of Washington v. Gunther that Title VII’s prohibition against sex-based wage discrimination wasn’t limited by equal work standards outlined in the original Equal Pay Act. The ruling bolstered moves by unions, women’s groups and others to tackle lower pay given to women employed in traditionally female-dominated occupations where few men worked.

• On Jan. 29, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Congress passed that law following a Supreme Court ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear. The case raised questions about a statute of limitations for filing complaints about job discrimination.

The law has been an important tool for parity as more women entered the workforce. Between 1960 and 1980, labor force participation by women jumped from 37.7 percent in 1960, to 43.3 percent in 1970, and to 51.5 percent by 1980.

Between 1980 and 2000, women began to advance even more in the labor market during the emerging information age. Non-traditional jobs in areas such as engineering, computer specialties and medicine became more common for women.

Between 2000 and 2010, however, workforce progress for women began to stall. While information technology transformed the work environment and promised to open more opportunities for women in this emerging sector, the task force found that progress slowed in the “volatile first decade “ of the new century during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Looking back on events such as the Equal Pay Act helps to give perspective to where women are in the labor force today. They now have a stronger presence on the assembly line and in the corporate suite. Earnings for many of them are influenced at least in part to employment-equity issues growing out of the Equal Pay Act.

About this series

During the next several months, we’ll look back and point to events today that have only a few degrees of separation from the big moments of 1963. It’s one way to help us connect the dots and understand how we got where we are.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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