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JFK Signed the Equal Pay Act On This Date

How do you feel about the Equal Pay Act of 1963 on its anniversary?

by Countable | 6.9.19

On June 10, 1963 President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, which aimed to eliminate wage discrimination based on a worker’s sex.

Why did it come up?

In the years after World War II more and more American women were joining the nation’s workforce, with the share of women in the labor force rising from 28.6 percent in 1948 to 34.4 percent in 1963. But women had traditionally been paid less than men ― even when performing the same job ― and by 1960 women were still being paid less than two-thirds of what their male counterparts earned.

The first attempt at a legislative solution to the problem was proposed by Congresswoman Winifred Stanley (R-NY) in 1944. She hoped to maintain “in peacetime the drive and energy which women have contributed to the war” by offering a bill to ban wage discrimination based on sex. While her bill ultimately didn’t receive a vote, she offered a poignant statement when introducing it:

“It has often been remarked that this is a ‘man’s world.’ The war and its far-reaching effects have provided the answer. It’s ‘our world,’ and this battered old universe needs and will need the best brains and ability of both men and women.”

What did it do?

The Equal Pay Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in the payment of wages, meaning employers can’t pay a female or male worker less than one of their counterparts purely because of their gender. It allowed workers to bring cases against their employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, although it protects all workers including those who are normally exempt from the FLSA (like professional or executive employees).

To establish a case, an employee has to show that:

  1. Different wages are paid to employees of the opposite sex;
  2. The employees perform substantially equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility; and
  3. The jobs are performed under similar working conditions.

To avoid being held liable for wage discrimination based on sex, employers have to prove at least one of the Equal Pay Act’s four affirmative defenses, which allow unequal pay for equal work if wages are set based on:

  • A seniority system;
  • A merit system;
  • A system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production;
  • Any other factor other than sex.


What has its impact been?

In the decades since the enactment of the Equal Pay Act the wage gap has further narrowed and the share of women in the labor force continued to grow to 46.8 percent in 2016. That year a study published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women’s median weekly earnings were 83 percent of men’s in 2014, but that the difference varied based on occupation.

Workers have also used the Equal Pay Act’s protections to bring claims against employers they believe are discriminating against them based on their sex. Data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows that there have been about 1,000 charges filed annually at the federal level since 1997. Of those, about one-fifth result in outcomes that are favorable to the charging parties while in a little more than half of cases no reasonable cause is found to believe that discrimination occurred.

— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: JFK Presidential Library and Museum / Public Domain)

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