The reality of women’s equality in the US—and what you can do about it

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Celebrated on August 26 in the United States, Women’s Equality Day was founded in 1973 to commemorate the 19th Amendment, in which women won the right to vote. Not to be confused with Equal Pay Day, Women’s Equality Day is a yearly reminder that true equality, in and out of the workplace, is a work in progress. 

But that’s what makes “celebrating” Women’s Equality Day so tricky. As nice as it would be to throw parties and cheerily wish each other a happy Women’s Equality Day, numerous statistics reveal equality isn’t a battle yet won. 

So how do we commemorate the accomplishments of 100 years ago and still acknowledge the gaps we have to fill? Here are a few reasons why many agree the battle isn’t yet won and what we can all do to even the odds. 

 

Women grads take on more debt and make less money

Women’s inequality looks a lot like debt, or so say sources like the United States Census Bureau (USCB) and the American Association of University Women (AAUW). 

The journey starts with college, where women graduate at a higher rate than men. The Council of Graduate Schools reports that as of fall 2017, “The majority of first-time graduate students at all degree levels were women.” It’s a statistic the USCB finds at the career level as well. Among full-time, year-round workers, “Women are more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than men (41.7% compared with 36.2%).”

But while women continue to earn more degrees across the board, they also incur more debt to get those degrees. According to an AAUW study, women take on a disproportionate amount of college debt between 2015 and 2016—around 14% more than men. Of the $929 billion of student debt in the U.S. today, women hold nearly two-thirds of the total.

“Wait,” you might say. “Isn’t debt what happens when you get more college degrees?”

Sure it is, but the problem isn’t just that women carry more debt than men for their degrees. It’s the fact that paying back their debt is more challenging. Once they take their diplomas into the workforce, many women struggle to pay back their student loans, finding that they’re still paid less than their male counterparts. How much less? “Among workers with a bachelor’s degree, women earn 74 cents for every dollar men make, which is less than the 78 cents for workers without the college degree,” the USCB says.

 

80% of Americans think women are guaranteed equal rights

But 80% of Americans are wrong. 

A 2016 ERA Coalition survey found most Americans polled assume the U.S. Constitution already guarantees men and women equal rights and protections. But the Equal Rights Amendment isn’t the same as the 19th Amendment. While the 19th Amendment is a law (women do, at least, have the right to vote), the Equal Rights Amendment is not. So what is the Equal Rights Amendment, and how might its passage or non-passage affect the lives of women?

The Equal Rights Amendment—introduced by Alice Paul in 1923—goes like this: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

For most of us, those words sound pretty black and white. It’s no wonder 80% of Americans polled think the law already exists, and 94% support constitutional equality. Yet over the years, the Equal Rights Amendment has ebbed and flowed in popularity. Today, 37 states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, guaranteeing women within their borders equal rights and protections. 

Unfortunately, a constitutional amendment requires ratification by 38 states in order to pass. So while 13 states have yet to sign on, only one more is needed for the amendment to become law. 

So what might passing the Equal Rights Amendment mean? One benefit is that laws protecting women would also be upheld, no matter the political climate. This includes the recently expired Violence Against Women Act or the rescinded Title IX anti-discrimination guidelines. Moving forward, it would also mean, once and for all, that men and women are equal. 

 

How to get involved and ‘celebrate’ Women’s Equality Day

Women’s equality is important not just for women but for any American. Unfortunately, even 100 years after women gained the right to vote, there still is no constitutional guarantee that all men and women are created and treated equally. Until such an amendment is ratified, here are three ways to observe Women’s Equality Day as the somewhat somber event it truly is.

  1. If your state is one of the 13 that haven’t ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, give your senators a call. 
  2. In a recent equal pay survey, 23% of self-described small business owners said they’d never analyzed pay rates by gender. If you’re a business owner, conduct a payroll audit for pay gaps in your company. Then establish an equal pay policy.
  3. Support pay increases for teachers. Teaching is one of the fields most commonly held by women. Taxpayers can bridge the pay gap—and the gender pay gap—by voting to back tax initiatives that increase teacher salaries.