– Mariko Chang is author of the forthcoming book “Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It.” A former Associate Professor of Sociology at Harvard, she is a member of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s Experts of Color Network. The views expressed are her own. –
I cheered when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law one year ago. But on its first anniversary, I find the pessimist in me prevails. My skepticism isn’t about this new law, but rather our almost myopic focus on equal pay as the panacea for women’s economic inequality. It’s the inequality in wealth we need to address.
You may recall that Ledbetter was a supervisor at a tire factory in Alabama who, after almost 20 years of employment, received an anonymous note containing the salaries of three other male supervisors. The sole woman among 16 supervisors, Ledbetter was the lowest paid person in her position, earning $3,727 per month. Salaries for the men in the same position ranged from $4,286 to $5,236 per month, despite some having less seniority and experience. Over 19 years, cumulative salary discrepancies cost Ledbetter more than $200,000 in wages.
Sadly, Ledbetter is not an exception. The wage gap costs an average woman almost a half a million dollars in income over her working years, according to Lifetime Losses, a report by Jessica Arons of the Center for American Progress. But this lifetime earnings gap is only the tip of the iceberg because it creates further inequities as lower wages translate into lower pension and Social Security benefits.
There is no doubt we need to keep working to close the pay gap between women and men. But there is equally important, if not more important, work to be done to close the wealth gap between them.