Senator Barbara Milkulski is holding a press conference later today to press the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which she recently introduced. But didn’t President Obama already kill the gender wage gap? Not quite. While Obama has long been touting the first bill he signed once in office, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, it only provides a woman more time to file a claim of discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act would go further by ensuring employees can discuss their salaries with each other—since it’s hard to root out pay discrimination if you don’t know how you stack up against everyone else.
Lilly Ledbetter certainly helps women who want to bring lawsuits against their employers by giving them more time to do so. In that way, Obama’s first act did recognize the problem of pay discrimination. But it’s a baby step forward in the march toward equal pay.
The numbers since its signing bear that out. According to Bloomberg, the number of pay discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission actually fell from 2,268 when Obama signed the Act in 2009 to 2,191 last year. Meanwhile, the pay gap has widened from 77.8 in 2007 to 77.4 percent in 2010.
So what will it take to make the wage gap disappear? Why wouldn’t clearing the way for lawsuits get us there? Part of the answer is that Ledbetter only nibbled at the edges of an enormous, systemic problem. As I’ve previously written, the causes of the gap range from a too low minimum wage to decreased unionization levels. These kinds of issues won’t budge on a large scale even if women are emboldened to sue for equal pay.
But can lawsuits make way for a big cultural shift on how we view and deal with discrimination? Perhaps it’s worth looking at another workplace issue that got a lot of legal attention not too long ago: sexual harassment. It’s far from a thing of the past: over 11,000 charges were filed with the EEOC and local Fair Employment Practices agencies last year. That’s down substantially from the late ’90s, however, which saw numbers in the 15,000s. And we’re a long way from the Mad Men era, when sexual harassment in the workplace was par for the course. “The women who brought some of the original lawsuits lived in war zones. Sometimes their lives were destroyed before they got out,” E.J. Graff, contributing editor at The American Prospect, senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and collaborator on Evelyn Murphy’s book Getting Even: Why Women Still Don’t Get Paid Like Men—And What To Do About It, told me. “I was just shocked by what I learned when I interviewed them and read the testimony.” It’s hard to deny that we’ve seen a huge cultural change in how we view that kind of discrimination.
How did that come about? Lawsuits certainly played a big part. While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act stipulated that an employer can’t discriminate on the basis of sex, it wasn’t until cases like Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that it was established that sexual harassment falls under such protection. Even after that, though, the Supreme Court then had to lay out the framework for making such claims. That didn’t happen until the ’90s—meaning that sexual harassment cases have been having a significant impact for only two decades.