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Don't believe the hype: In the real world, women still make less than men

By Maya Harris
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 0958 GMT (1758 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maya Harris: President Obama had no option but to sign orders on Equal Pay
  • Congress, she says, now must pass the Paycheck Fairness Act
  • Wage-gap deniers, she says, are trotting out the same old tired arguments

Editor's note: Maya L. Harris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School. You can follow her on Twitter @mayaharris_ . The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- When it comes to the gender pay gap, the cynics have used smoke and mirrors to deny the truth while Congress continues to come up short on critical legislation.

So now, the President is not waiting another minute to make real progress. He is taking action.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama continued his "year of action" by signing two new executive orders to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws where Congress has so far failed to act.

He also challenged the Senate to "start making this right" by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act when it comes up for a vote on Wednesday. The Senate has tried twice, but the act was blocked by a handful of stubborn Republicans.

Maya L. Harris
Maya L. Harris

But even before the ink was dry on his executive orders, wage-gap deniers were trotting out the same old tired arguments we've heard for years. Rationalizing or outright denying that pay inequity exists, and dismissing the equal pay push as a political ploy designed to distract from other, "real" issues.

Yet for millions of women struggling on the brink of poverty, the wage gap is all too real.

Despite increasing education and greater professional success, women in the aggregate still make less than men: on average, 77 cents on the dollar, and even less if you are black or Latina. This persistent pay gap has real implications for women and their families, especially when 40% of our nation's households with children rely on women as a primary or sole source of income.

That 23-cent disparity means a yearly wage gap for women of more than $11,000. And what does that translate into? On average, working women in the United States can afford 91 fewer weeks of food for their families, 13 fewer months of rent, and more than 3,000 fewer gallons of gas per year as compared to men.

It's not surprising then that polls rank equal pay for equal work as a top issue for women across the country.

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More people prefer a male boss, but gender gap is narrowing

But like a bad magician, the naysayers are trying to use smoke and mirrors to fool us into believing the problem is just an illusion. They say the wage gap is a myth, based on anecdotes, not data.

They say there's no need for new laws, because it's already illegal to discriminate. Any differences that remain, they say, can be explained away by personal choices.

While it's true the wage gap is due to a combination of factors, study after study has shown the wage gap — as much as 40% of it — holds true even when we control for factors such as education level, profession or position. It cannot be fully explained by personal choices, and can be attributed in some measure to overt or unintentional gender-based discrimination.

The gap manifests out of the gate and only widens over time. A 2012 report from the American Association of University Women, "Graduating to a Pay Gap," made an "apples-to-apples" comparison of college-educated women and men working full time one year out of school. After controlling for college major, occupation, hours worked per week, economic sector, and other factors, women still made 7% less than what their male counterparts made.

And in an earlier report, the association found that 10 years after graduation, the unexplained pay gap widened to 12%.

Indeed, women's wages are lower in nearly all occupations -- doctors, lawyers, even low-wage workers. And this is true regardless of whether the job is one performed predominantly by men, predominantly women, or an even mix of both.

What millennial women want now

That's why we still need Congress to act, to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to ensure that all employers are held to the standards embodied in Tuesday's executive actions.

This week Congress has an opportunity to go from its standing ovation for equal pay at the State of the Union to really standing up for women.

When the rubber meets the road, let's hope we move beyond the rhetoric to acting on real solutions. Don't make the President take out his pen again, unless it is to sign the new law.

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