Gender discrimination bills ranked

With the news that Tom Harkin, the Democratic senator from Iowa, is retiring, I’m reminded of the sorry state of congressional legislation against sex discrimination.


Please correct me if you think I’m wrong, but my reading of the three recent bills ranks them like this, from least to most important:

3. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. This changed the Civil Rights Act to reset the statute of limitations every time a discriminatory paycheck is issued. It undid the pernicious Ledbetter Supreme Court case, which interpreted the law to start the clock with the first act of discrimination.

  • STATUS: Signed by President Obama, used as the symbol of his dedication to “putting the law behind the principle of equal pay for equal work.” But it didn’t address the biggest problems in the law, which still permits different pay for equal work, just not identical work (with the same job title, in the same establishment, in some cases).

2. The Paycheck Fairness Act. Hillary Clinton used to sponsor this while she was in the Senate. It would narrow the “exception to the prohibition for a wage rate differential,” which is described as “closing loopholes” in the law. I can’t tell how much of a difference that would make, but I heard smart lawyers say it would help. It would also prohibit retaliation against employees in some cases and strengthen class action protections.

  • STATUS: 36 Cosponsors in the Senate and going nowhere fast.

1. The Fair Pay Act. Introduced regularly by Sen. Harkin, most recently in 2011. “Most importantly,” according to Harkin, “it requires each individual employer to provide equal pay for jobs that are comparable in skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions.” Where current law makes it next to impossible to sue for discrimination when men and women have separate job titles, this bill would make employers defend their pay differences across different jobs, held by men versus women, to show the pay gap was justified. This is the scariest of the lot for employers.

Without Harkin, we may not even get the symbolic re-introduction of the Fair Pay Act each session.

7 thoughts on “Gender discrimination bills ranked

  1. Paul Burstein ( and his colleagues have a couple of interesting papers in the mid to late 1990s tracking themes in Congressional legislation; they document a shift over time from equal opportunity themes to work-family balance themes (e.g., the FMLA of 1993). While advocates of work-life balance legislation see these initiatives as steps toward gender equality, we need to worry that by unintentionally endorsing a “mommy track” and by perhaps shifting attention away from equal opportunity legislation, the work-life balance initiatives have had the perverse consequence of stalling the gender revolution.


    1. Thanks, I will look it up. I agree with the concern about work-family balance approaches. I think it is also important to distinguish between those policies which encourage women to work (such as subsidized childcare), versus those which help women not work (for pay), such as more generous leave policies.


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