Closing the Knowledge Gap on the Pay Gap

Filed in Workplace Rights by on August 25, 2011 4 Comments

Pay equity laws have been on the books for more than 40 years, but the pay gap lives on.  As Secretary Solis reminded us on Equal Pay Day this year, in 2011 women still earn about 20 cents less on the dollar than men.  And that 20 cents adds up — to $150 less a week, up to $8000 less a year, and as much as $380,000 less over a lifetime of full time work.  For women of color the gap is even bigger; 30 cents on the dollar for African-American women and 40 cents for Latinas.

Some of my colleagues recently uncovered this early-1970’s Department of Labor public service announcement, where Batgirl educates Batman and Robin about federal laws against pay discrimination:

“Holy Act of Congress! Batman and Robin have been captured and are tied next to a ticking bomb, when Batgirl arrives to save them. She first informs them that she deserves the same pay as Robin, according to the Federal Equal Pay Law. She then proceeds to save them.”

When Batgirl was standing up for equal pay for women decades ago, new laws and big changes in the workplace were closing the gap — but that progress has stalled for women and people of color.

So the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance is building new 21st century tools to fight back against an old problem.  We are updating our regulations.  We are upgrading our technology.  We are using data and social science to make our enforcement more efficient and effective — and we want your help.

Recently OFCCP announced the beginning of a public comment period on our proposal to create a new Compensation Data Collection Tool.  This tool would gather pay data from employers who have contracts with the federal government.  We don’t know enough about the problem, or the best ways to solve it.  It’s long past time to close the knowledge gap on the pay gap.

A couple of months ago, the Department of Labor announced a settlement of pay discrimination claims involving Astra Zeneca, one of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers.  Women in sales positions were making $1700 less on average than the men in those jobs.  The company agreed to provide backpay and evaluate its current pay practices for potential gender bias.

Better data means better enforcement of the laws against pay discrimination — and better voluntary measures to improve pay equity.  But right now there is no formal mechanism to capture basic pay information from employers who have federal contracts.  So we are proposing to collect this data and asking for input on how to best design it.  We want to have a real conversation about this project at the beginning.  We need to know about the potential benefits of different categories of data and the practicalities and burdens of various reporting approaches.  

The goal is to develop a good screening mechanism for issues and areas raising potential fair pay problems that might need further study and analysis. That way OFCCP can focus its resources where they are most needed.  The tool should also help employers monitor their pay practices and can even help researchers better understand the pay gap.  To submit a comment, or to read the notice, go to this page at

Unfair pay means fewer dollars for families trying to make ends meet in tough economic times. It’s not just a problem for superheroines like Batgirl, but for everyday Americans. Fortunately, the White House Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force, where the Department of Labor teams up with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Justice and other federal agencies is working to fight the pay gap.

As my boss, OFCCP Director Patricia Shiu, likes to say, “Being a federal contractor is a privilege, not a right.”  And with that privilege comes a promise of fair pay and fair opportunities that the Department of Labor stands ready to enforce.

Pamela Coukos is a civil rights lawyer and scholar who currently serves as Senior Program Advisor to the Director of the OFCCP.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Mike Dahmus says:

    The gender pay gap is a myth – the 80% figure is bogus.

    And from a study commissioned by (and with input from) the DoL:

    “This study leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”

  2. Gregg Stoerrle says:

    Equal pay sounds great. But what about equal rights?
    We did not get our right to a fair investigation in our OSHA 11C case. Even with the complete indisputible proof that my employer knowingly sent out on rent a five ton JLG scissor lift with a major steering problem on the day they terminated me 4/20/09 for supposed safety violations! COMPLETE INDISPUTIBLE DOCUMENTATION THEY DID THIS GIVEN TO OSHA!!

    Where is my right to getting my questions answered by the department of Labor AND that i keep asking you Ms Solis?
    Please do not deny or delay my right to post this on this government web sight.
    Thank you
    Gregg Stoerrle

  3. Alice Smith says:

    This graph is very problemati­c in the fact that it’s a weekly average, not a wage average, I HIGHLY doubt that there is much of a pay gap as this graph is implying, it’s just that men work longer weekly hours than women. A good friend of mine works as a nurse, he makes the same amount as women and on average he works 20 more hours a week than his female counterpar­ts, dramatical­ly increasing­s his median weekly earnings over females. If the graph was on a median hourly earnings, than it would probably be very very close to par.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I have never witnessed nor been privy to income discrimination myself, but there is definitely something going on these days. Everywhere I look, I see two income families struggling to just make ends meet. These are the people that aren’t even making minimum wage- they are middle class. Just 50 years ago families were thriving on just one income supplied usually by the father, and the mother was able to stay home. You would think that now that both parents are working, there’d be an influx of discretionary income, but there’s not. Here is a great book on the subject…

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