SOUTH CHINA – Equal Pay Day, which fell this year on April 9, symbolizes how far into 2013 women must work to earn what men earned in 2012. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women who work full time earn an average of 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. Minority women face an even larger wage gap.

The wage gap has real consequences. With 70.2 million women in the work force, wage discrimination hurts the majority of American families. Further, women are increasingly the primary breadwinners in their households.

Wage discrimination lowers total lifetime earnings, thus reducing women’s benefits from pension plans and Social Security and their ability to save for retirement. There are reasons for this wage gap, but they do not fully explain the difference in wages between women and men. 

According to research by the American Association of University Women, women are still pigeonholed in “pink-collar” jobs that have lower wages. In 2010, almost 40 percent of working women were employed in traditionally female occupations such as nursing, social work, and teaching, while less than 5 percent of men worked in these jobs.

Women are overwhelmingly clustered in low-wage, low-skill fields such as cosmetology, health assistance or child care.  In higher-wage fields, women are less well represented. They account for 10 percent in construction and repair, 6 percent in the electrician industry, and 6 percent in the plumbing industry.

While women’s achievements in higher education over the past three decades have helped narrow the wage gap, educational gains have not translated yet into full equity for women in the workplace. 

The AAUW’s 2012 report, “Graduating to a Pay Gap: The Earnings of Women and Men One Year after College Graduation,” controlled for factors known to affect earnings, such as education, parenthood, occupation and hours worked, and found that college-educated women still earn 7 percent less than men one year out of college. This report suggests that sex discrimination continues to be a problem. 

While we have some laws originally aimed at narrowing the wage gap, they clearly are not working well enough.

Signed into law by President Kennedy in 1963, the Equal Pay Act aimed to abolish wage disparity based on sex. 

The law prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in the workplace for jobs with equal skill, effort and responsibility. However, disparities still remain, even for men and women performing the same jobs. 

In 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed, thus regaining ground lost because of a horrible Supreme Court decision.  

While the Ledbetter Act reinstated employees’ ability to have their day in court, we need further action to give employees and employers the tools they need to close the pay gap.

Contrary to what Sen. Angus King wrote me in a recent letter, we need the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84, H.R. 377) to help women make progress toward more financial equity. As Ms. Ledbetter herself has said, “Giving women my Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act without the Paycheck Fairness Act is like giving them a nail without a hammer.”

The Paycheck Fairness Act brings needed protections. It closes loopholes in the Equal Pay Act so employers must have a legitimate business reason for paying women less for the same work.

The legislation clarifies acceptable reasons for differences in pay by requiring employers to demonstrate that wage gaps between men and women doing the same work have a business justification and are truly a result of factors other than gender. 

The Paycheck Fairness Act prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who discuss their salary with co-workers. Further, it modernizes enforcement of the Equal Pay Act in several ways. 

One way this will happen is that the Paycheck Fairness Act eliminates artificial geographic limits, allowing a woman to reasonably compare her salary to male colleagues with the same employer as long as the facilities are in similar geographic regions.

The Paycheck Fairness Act also provides safeguards for small businesses by keeping exemptions for companies that make less than $500,000 in annual revenues.

The wage gap between men and women working in the same occupations persists because we need adequate controls to reduce gender bias in the workplace.

We need to let our U.S. senators and representatives know that the time has come for passing the Paycheck Fairness Act. 

I look forward to the year when Equal Pay Day falls on Dec. 31 rather than in April.

Bets Brown of South China is public policy chair of the American Association of University Women of Maine.