I learned early on, as the daughter of immigrants, that although the Constitution says that “all men are created equal,” all men and women are not treated equally. My parents saw getting a good education from a reputable institution as one way to “even out the playing field, ” so I thought my degrees from UC Berkeley and Columbia University would protect me from such injustices.
I was terribly wrong. I would ultimately end up being paid substantially less for doing the same job as a male counterpart for two years—and I found out because the person who was earning more than me was my partner.
“Pay inequity is key to understanding the precarious state of the American economy as a whole—and that also makes pay equity and higher wages vital pieces of any proposal to ensure economic security.” – @AAUW SVP @DebVagins on why Congress must pass the #PaycheckFairness Act. pic.twitter.com/S8rgEbcBEE
— AAUW (@AAUW) February 13, 2019
I met my husband in 2004, when we were both enrolled in the same graduate programs at Columbia University. Two years after we graduated with the same dual Masters degrees in Education and Counseling Psychology, we were hired by the same agency for the same position.
I was extensively more qualified than my husband to serve as a school-based clinician: I had more than five years work experience in the field, outstanding references and a California Pupil Personnel Services Credential. But I am a Chinese American woman, and my husband is a white man—and I was offered only $35,700 a year, whereas he was offered $41,000.
That whopping 13 percent difference grew over two years to mean over $10,000 lost—effectively robbing us both of an extra $440 a month to pay for rent, access to healthy food and child care and cutting short my own future earning potential and social security benefits.
Our attempts at investigating and mitigating the situation were unsuccessful. Our emails, phone calls and letters to the employment agency went unanswered. We couldn’t afford a lawyer. We were forced to accept the situation. And I felt disrespected and devalued.
Once I knew about the wage gap manifesting in my own marriage, every single day became an emotional and mental struggle. I consciously resisted internalizing what had happened to me as my fault, fought back against thinking that somehow it was me who wasn’t enough. Sometimes, it was difficult to even be around my husband knowing that I worked every bit as hard, arguably harder than him, but was still paid less.
This wasn’t just an illegal, unjust and unethical situation. It was a traumatic one—and it required hundreds of hours of counseling and social activism to heal.
Over 50 years ago, the Equal Pay Act made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to men and women who perform substantially equal work. Ten years ago, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act restored the rights of pay discrimination victims, and made it clear that in the eyes of the legal system, the time limit for filing a discrimination claim resets with each discriminatory paycheck.
But even that is not enough. Today, women who work full time, year-round, are paid only 80 cents on average for every dollar men earn. That’s a $10,169 gap each year that persists and exists in every state—regardless of geography, occupation, education or work patterns. And it is even worse for moms and women of color.
Despite all this, I’m confident that we’re on the precipice of change. Among candidates in competitive Senate, House and gubernatorial races in 2018, equal pay was the issue most commonly included in candidates’ platforms. Presidential candidates are prioritizing wage and family issues. The U.S. is more primed than ever to pass legislation to curb this unjust practice.
The U.S. finally moved closer to pay equality on Wednesday, when Congress convened a hearing on the Paycheck Fairness Act to hear from experts and those who have suffered because of the wage gap. This critical legislation would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, help to break harmful patterns of pay discrimination and establish stronger workplace protections for women. It would assist businesses who need support with their equal pay practices and ensure the Department of Labor uses tools to investigate and identify any disparities.
My story should not be so common. Wage discrimination carries a profound impact on the lives of women—both in their ability to afford necessities for their families, and in the psychological and emotional toll this discrimination leaves behind. My family came to America believing that by working hard(er), we would have the same opportunities as everyone else—but we’re not there yet.
I’m hopeful Congress will finally do right by women and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. True equality is long overdue.
Laura Mui is a marriage and family therapist in Oakland, California.