New California Law Is A Big Step Forward For Working Women

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

California State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D) after her wage equality bill passed the Senate

On Monday, the California Senate unanimously passed an equal pay bill with the strongest measures aimed at closing the gender wage gap in the country. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has said that he’ll sign it into law.

The bill has a number of provisions, but the piece that stands out the most is one that requires employers to pay men and women the same for “substantially similar work,” not just the exact same job, unless differences are based on productivity, merit, and/or seniority.

This provision is what used to be called pay equity: not just requiring the same pay for the same job, but for different jobs that are similar in terms of effort, responsibility, and skill. While it isn’t mentioned much anymore, in the 1980s there was a strong movement toward laws that would require pay equality based on this concept. By 1989, 20 states had made adjustments among their own workforces based on “comparable worth,” or the idea of paying the same for substantially similar work in different jobs. More than 335,000 women got a raise and 20 percent of their gender wage gap was eliminated. That reduced the overall wage gap, and in five states it closed by 25 to 33 percent.

Most of these projects have now been abandoned, however, although Minnesota has kept its own running. At the same time, progress on closing the country’s gender wage gap, which means that women make 78 percent of what men make, has stalled for about a decade.

California’s new bill also bans employers from retaliating against employees who discuss pay. Even though all American workers have a legal right to discuss compensation with each other, about half say that doing so is either discouraged, prohibited, or could lead to disciplinary actions. That poses a significant hurdle for women trying to address unequal pay, given that it makes it very difficult to find out what everyone else at their job makes. Lilly Ledbetter, for whom the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act was named, didn’t know she was being paid less until 19 years later. On the other hand, in places like the federal government and unionized workforces, where pay is usually transparent, the gender wage gap is much smaller.

Another provision of California’s law would allow employees to take action against wage gaps between different worksites, not just at their own location.

While women in California overall make 84 percent of what men make, some of the state’s major industries have huge pay disparities. In Silicon Valley, men with Bachelor’s Degrees make 40 percent more than women with the same education, and men with a graduate or professional degree make 73 percent more. Large pay gaps have been found for Hollywood actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Charlize Theron, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, and among the highest paid actors men collectively make nearly two and a half times what the women do.

Progress toward passing national legislation aimed at closing the gender wage gap has stalled. The Paycheck Fairness Act would ban salary secrecy while narrowing what counts as a legitimate business justification for gender pay disparities, but Republicans have stood in lockstep to block it multiple times. Meanwhile, the Fair Pay Act, which would require equal pay for comparable work, has been introduced nearly every session but always fails to get a vote.

In the meantime, some states have taken action like California to address their own wage gaps. Earlier this year, Oregon considered two bills that would require equal pay for equivalent work and ban salary secrecy. New York lawmakers passed a package of equal pay bills in April that got rid of salary secrecy and beefed up its current protections for women who are unfairly paid less than men.