WASHINGTON -- The pay gap between men and women closed slightly in the last decade, but that's little encouragement for equal-pay advocates who say Congress must do more to help achieve parity.
They responded to a General Accounting Office report that showed women whose education stopped with a high school diploma or less are earning 86 percent as much as similarly educated men, up from 81 percent a decade ago. And, while women make up 49 percent of the total workforce, they compose 59 percent of workers who earn the lowest wages -- averaging from $8.21 to $9.09 per hour. The study analyzed the pay of workers ages 25 to 64.
The report attributed some of the disparity to fewer hours worked by women. It found that workers with the lowest annual household incomes -- averaging $27,000 -- tended to be single mothers.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., requested the report last year when she was chairwoman of the Joint Economic Commission, now led by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. The two lawmakers released the report together at a news conference Thursday.
Ms. Maloney referred to the disparity as "the mom bomb," saying women's pay falls after they become mothers, while men's pay rises after they become fathers. "I call it discrimination. It's something we need to work to overcome and work to address," she said.
Mr. Casey, meanwhile, called wage parity "a matter of basic justice, a matter of economic security for women and ... economic strength for the nation," he said in releasing the report. "If we don't pay attention to this problem and don't focus on strategies to narrow that gap, ... I think we're doing damage to our economy more broadly."
The National Women's Law Center, the American Association of University Women and the National Committee on Pay Equity said the findings demonstrate slow and inadequate progress.
"The report demonstrates in such stark terms how much women bear the brunt of the struggle. They are the majority of low-wage workers," said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "These women and their families desperately need financial security."
Ms. Greenberger called upon Congress to revisit the Paycheck Fairness Act, which passed the House in 2009, but not the Senate. Reintroduced in April, the legislation would protect targets of wage discrimination from retaliation, provide negotiation training for women and allow employees to discuss salary information with co-workers, despite workplace rules preventing disclosure.
She also stumped for broader government action to support education and infrastructure improvements, which would create jobs.
In Pennsylvania, the burgeoning natural gas industry brings the promise of jobs, but Mr. Casey couldn't say whether that would help women. "Women are under-represented in construction-type jobs," he said, "so it begs the question in this emerging field whether women will be adequately or fairly represented."
GAO analysts offered no predictions for the wider workforce, either. "It remains unclear what effect the weak economy and continued high unemployment will have on the work patterns or pay differences we found," they concluded in the report. Understanding issues that may affect gender pay differences "would better position policy-makers in focusing scarce resources to respond to the needs of less-advantaged workers."
Lisa M. Maatz, director of public policy for the American Association of University Women, said the issue is about not just workplace fairness but also the nation's overall economic health.
"Women, in many respects, are the consumer decision-makers. If women don't feel economically secure, they aren't going to spend," she said. "Getting equal pay for equal work would be the biggest economic stimulus of all."
More information and a link to the full report can be found at www.jec.senate.gov.