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The War on Equal Pay for Women

The War on Equal Pay for Women

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Legislation that would make it easier for people to compare salary data with their colleagues when they suspect their employers are stiffing them is headed for a fight in Congress. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moved to force a June 5 vote on the long-stalled bill.

Known as the Paycheck Fairness Act, the bill passed in the Democrat-controlled House in 2010 but failed to make it anywhere near President Barack Obama’s desk after every single Republican in the Senate voted against it. Now that women’s rights have taken on a central role in the presidential campaign, Reid and his fellow Democrats have revived the issue to put Republicans on the spot. The strategy may pay off, as it looks like Republicans are raring to block the bill again. Jon Kyl, the Arizona GOP senator in charge of rounding up votes, is panning the legislation, telling my colleague Kathleen Hunter of Bloomberg News, “All this does is add more ways in which trial lawyers can make money on these people. It doesn’t do anything to advance anybody’s rights.”

The bill’s strongest advocate is Lilly Ledbetter, the former Goodyear tire manager who got an equal rights law named after her for her efforts to sue her employer for pay discrimination. She became an unwitting cause for embarrassment on the Right last month after a staffer for Mitt Romney couldn’t initially say whether Romney supported the Lilly Ledbetter Act. (Last week I asked Romney’s campaign if he supports the Paycheck Fairness Act; staffers still haven’t responded to my request.)

If you’re a woman who suspects you’re making less than your colleagues, it’s extremely hard to a) prove it and b) win in court. Many companies have human resource policies dictating that people be fired for asking about pay—or even for disclosing one’s own salary. “Over the last 20 to 25 years it has become considerably harder to bring and prevail in employment discrimination cases,” explains Joseph Sellers, a partner at Cohen Milstein who’s represented women in dozens of cases.

The Paycheck Fairness Act wouldn’t force an employee or company to disclose salary data; it would simply prevent people who ask for information from being punished. The bill would also allow the government to collect data on pay from a wide swath of companies and to put it in a confidential database. Women’s rights advocates hope the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would then start using statistical modeling tools to screen companies for patterns of discrimination and bring cases against them. (The Department of Labor already uses this method to suss out cases of potential hiring discrimination.) This would all take awhile to put in place—if, that is, the senators actually manage to settle their differences first.

Dwoskin is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow her on Twitter: @lizzadwoskin.

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