Marko Metzinger\Studio D

The saleswoman who sold you a flat-screen TV at the electronics store or a new insurance policy over the phone earns an average of $516 per week — $280 less than her male coworker. This discrepancy — women make an average of 22 cents less per hour across all fields — isn't a matter of differing experience or ability. In fact, for 45 years it's been considered a matter of discrimination, and it's illegal. Yet although the Equal Pay Act of 1963 granted women the right to receive the same wages as men for performing the same jobs, today American women still aren't getting the money they've rightly earned.

With the country's economy in turmoil, more families are relying on women's salaries to keep them going. Between December 2007 and December 2008, half of the nation's job losses have occurred in the male-dominated construction and manufacturing fields, and four out of five jobs lost have been men's. While unemployment among women has gone up from 4.3 percent to 6.2 percent, men's has risen more dramatically — from 4.4 percent to 7.6 percent. In dual-income households, women earn just over a third (37 percent) of the family's total wages, so when the man loses his job, that's almost two thirds of the household's income gone. Now more than ever, every working woman in this country needs every cent she can get — and that she deserves.

The pay gap, as the salary discrepancy is known, strikes women at every stage of their lives, and in many different fields. And education doesn't necessarily help. "The pay gap between college-educated men and women appears within the first year after college, and it continues to widen during the first 10 years in the workforce," says Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women. "The gap persists despite women's increased educational attainment, greater level of experience in the workforce, and decreased amount of time spent out of the workforce raising children. Gender stereotyping is alive and well."

Although the precise causes of the wage gap haven't been determined, Maatz says a major factor is maternal profiling. "A lot of assumptions are made about women's roles and, by extension, their value as employees," says Maatz. "A hiring manager might assume that a woman does most of the caregiving work — whether she's a mom or might become a mom at some point — so it follows that she would take more time off and wouldn't be willing to work late or travel. None of this is necessarily true, but assumptions are made, and wages, training, and promotions may be set accordingly." And these stereotypical assumptions can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: "In a two-earner family, if one parent needs to stay home with a sick child and neither parent has paid sick days left, the one who earns the least will stay home," Maatz says. "Ironically, these same stereotypes work in men's favor: With women, it's assumed that family caregiving will impact work, but with men it's assumed that they need good wages more than ever if they have a family to support."

Some argue that the pay gap isn't a matter of discrimination but a matter of personal choice. Warren Farrell, Ph.D., author of Why Men Earn More, suggests that because women are often the ones taking care of the children, they are opting out of more demanding, more profitable career paths, or they work part-time or take periods off and are therefore less likely to hold the most lucrative positions. Maatz disagrees: "After considering job tenure, years in the labor market, occupation, and education, about 20 percent of the wage gap remains unexplained."

Though the government has been slow to enforce equal pay, small strides have been made since the passage of the Equal Pay Act: Back in 1963, a woman earned 59 cents for each dollar earned by a man, so today's 78 cents to the dollar is a marked improvement. And working women have a friend in President Obama, who has long championed equal wages for women. In 2003, as an Illinois state senator, he cosponsored and passed that state's Equal Pay Act to protect an additional 330,000 women, those who worked at small companies, from pay discrimination. (Previously, only workers at companies with at least 15 employees were protected.) And from Day One of his presidency, Obama made it a priority to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act: It was the first bill he signed.

One Woman's Crusade for Fair Pay
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act allows women who have suffered pay discrimination to seek restitution regardless of when the discrimination took place. This legislative triumph for women workers began way back in 1979, when Lilly Ledbetter started her job at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company plant, where she stayed for the next 20 years. In 1998, Ledbetter found an anonymous note in her mailbox that revealed the higher pay of three men who did the same job. "The note floored me," Ledbetter has said. "I was so shocked ... at the difference in our pay for doing the exact same job." She immediately filed sexual discrimination charges. In 2003, Ledbetter won, and was awarded $3.8 million in back pay and damages. But in 2007, the Supreme Court overturned the case and ruled in favor of Goodyear, saying that Ledbetter had filed her complaint too late, and that she could have — and should have — sued within 180 days of when the pay decisions were made. "I had some folks say, 'You just waited in the bushes for 20 years to collect the big pay day.' That's not true!" Ledbetter has said. After all, for 20 years she had no idea that she was being compensated unfairly. If she had, she would have acted: "I needed that money [throughout those 20 years] when my children were in college, and to feed them and pay the bills."

Change for the Better
In 2007, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was introduced to Congress in the hope of reversing the Supreme Court's 2007 Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. decision; the bill was not enacted until January of this year, when it was reintroduced and passed overwhelmingly. "[I]n signing this bill today," Obama said, "I intend to send a clear message: that making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone; that there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces; and that it's not just unfair and illegal but bad for business to pay someone less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, or disability."

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a good start in the fight for fair pay, but it's not the whole solution. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the bill, argued that it would "dramatically expand the number of frivolous and otherwise questionable cases that could be brought against employers," asserting that numerous lawsuits are beneficial to no one. There is a bill making the legislative rounds that would reduce the number of gender-discrimination lawsuits being filed by reducing the discrimination itself: The Paycheck Fairness Act would require employers to justify any pay differential between men and women. The act, which was introduced in 2007 by then-Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, would also ban employers from punishing workers who reveal their salaries to coworkers and would require the Department of Labor to shore up its efforts to eliminate the pay gap and to distribute gender-based wage information. Though it passed in the House of Representatives this past January, it did not get passed in the Senate. "The Paycheck Fairness Act is needed to prevent pay discrimination from happening in the first place, and to give real teeth to our government to enforce consequences for violations," says Lisa Maatz. "There's hope that the bill will pass this spring."

The bottom line? The future is looking brighter for fair pay, but the war on wage discrimination isn't over yet. Find out what you can do to help yourself — and all women — earn the paychecks you clearly deserve. Your coworkers, your family, and your fellow American women will thank you.

How to Earn What You're Worth

1. Do your research. To find out how much you'd earn in your job position if you were a man, go to wageproject.org and punch your info into the "Getting Even Calculator."

2. Schedule a meeting with your boss, and then prepare. Outline a presentation about why you feel your current pay is unfair to you as a woman. Include facts and/or numbers that you found in your research, and be clear about your requests. Anticipate issues your boss might raise, and plan your responses. To bolster your confidence, go to wageproject.org and read stories from women who faced wage discrimination and stood up against it.

3. Gain strength in numbers. Talk to other women at your office who also believe they're not being paid equitably. Work together to recommend how the wage gap can be closed at your company. It is often most powerful to go to your boss as a group to present complaints and recommendations for change.