By Rep. Susan Davis
On June 10, 1963, a group of women gathered in the Oval Office, dressed in delicate white gloves and flowered hats that belied their fierce courage and tenacity. Although President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act that day, it was these women who fought tirelessly to make it happen.
Decades later, the promise of the Equal Pay Act has not been fully realized. On average, women in America still earn only 77 percent of what men make, and this gap is even more pronounced among women of color. In all this time, and despite these shortcomings, the Equal Pay Act has never been updated or strengthened. It’s clear that we have not finished the work that those brave women started.
On the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and I gathered with community leaders in Chula Vista to celebrate the strides women have made, and to discuss the work that still needs to be done. We talked about the wage gap, as well as the other hurdles that women face in the workplace. Most importantly, we discussed what can be done to empower young women and girls.
The wage gap is an enduring and complicated problem. We know that much of it cannot be explained by the career choices women make or the hours they work, and is likely due to discrimination. To address this element of the wage gap, we need reforms like the Paycheck Fairness Act, which closes loopholes in the Equal Pay Act and provides effective remedies to women facing pay discrimination.
But there are also deeper issues at play: systemic issues that require us to ask harder questions and seek more innovative solutions. Many women struggle to balance their careers with the demands of raising a family, a feat made more difficult by a lack of affordable childcare. Women are critically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and women around the world still face social pressures and gender norms that discourage and exclude them from the workplace.
In 2013, women made up almost half of the workforce but only 24 percent of the jobs in STEM fields. These fields constitute some of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy, but the percentage of women working in STEM has remained constant over the past decade. Science and technology are the future of our economy, and they are leaving women behind.
Closing the wage gap will depend in large part on getting women into higher-paying fields, so addressing the STEM gap is critical. Contrary to popular belief, many girls love science and math, but they opt out of these subjects too soon. We need to nurture the interest that’s already there and show girls that they can have a future in STEM. To do that, we must give them mentors and role models.
Jo Dee Jacob, CEO of Girl Scouts San Diego and a member of our panel, made a great point on the importance of mentors in getting young women involved in the hard sciences. She said that girls can’t be what they can’t see. Girls need mentors to show them what they can achieve, not only in STEM, but across all fields.
As a member of the House Democracy Partnership, I have had the opportunity to witness the difficulties women face and the progress they have made around the world. I’ve spoken with women leaders in Kyrgyzstan and Kenya who were struggling to make their voices heard in governments dominated by men. I know these struggles. Women in our own Congress and in boardrooms across the country face the same challenge every day. I spoke with women legislators in Tunisia about the need for governments to move beyond quotas and recognize that listening to women is more than fair, it is vital. Government and business can flourish with the unique input that comes from a woman’s perspective.
On a visit to Afghanistan, I was privileged to speak with a group of young girls who told me of their dreams to be doctors and lawyers. Girls around the world aim for the stars when we tell them what they can be, instead of what they can’t. This experience showed me the importance of reaching girls while they’re young and nurturing their natural curiosity and ambition.
Closing the wage gap will require community engagement and broad social change, but there are important steps that the government can take as well. We can work to make early childhood education affordable and available to all Americans, for the good of women and their families. And this Congress must work to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which makes it easier for women to find out if they are being discriminated against, protects them from retaliation, and helps them hold employers accountable for pay discrimination. It’s time to update the Equal Pay Act and deliver on the promise of fair pay.
Making these steps towards equality will not be easy, but we have a solid foundation to stand on. We are standing on the shoulders of the women who passed the Equal Pay Act, and on those of the suffragettes who came before them. It is only a matter of time before we reach the top.