The enactment of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which overturned a Supreme Court decision that in effect upheld sex discrimination in the workplace, represented an important step in encouraging equal pay for equal work.
A complementary bill now is winding its way through Congress. The impact of this one isn't as obvious as the Ledbetter act.
There was no question that the Ledbetter act was a clear attempt to right an injustice. Lilly Ledbetter spent a career at Goodyear, advancing to supervisor at its Gadsden, Ala., tire plant. When she was about to retire, Ledbetter discovered her wages had been considerably below that of her male peers, a fact that distinctly affected her pension.
After various court battles, the case was heard by the high court. Ledbetter lost, but the decision energized fair-pay advocates. After the Democrats won control of Congress and the White House, the Ledbetter act was made law.
The other legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act, passed the House but went no further in 2009. The problem isn't its intent: it aims to reduce the pay gap between men and women.
Women average only about 77 cents for every dollar their counterparts receive in wages. That's hard to believe in this day and age, after decades of laws and societal pressure to even the wage structure and opportunities for women in the workplace.
It isn't just refuting sexism to support equal pay. In many households in this time of 10-percent unemployment, when families typically rely on two incomes, unequal pay ultimately hurts children as well as their parents. That's a real family value issue.
But changing such an ingrained characteristic of American business and society isn't easy.
The Paycheck Fairness Act, in its 2009 form, tried to do a lot in a short period of time. It would greatly open up the opportunity for women to sue because of gender-based discrimination, removing current limits on back pay and damages. It also would facilitate class action suits.
Opponents of the Ledbetter act predicted a flood of lawsuits if it became law. A year later, that has been proved to be merely political rhetoric. It could be different with this new legislation.
The Goodyear embarrassment over Lilly Ledbetter was an exception: Big companies know better than to discriminate because of gender or race. A smaller, non-union shop could very well get caught in past practices that today are unacceptable in society.
The Paycheck Fairness Act needs some close scrutiny, to be fair to all.