The reason this is such a hot issue now is because the Supreme Court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter last year in a lawsuit against her employer Goodyear. They determined that her complaint had been filed after the appropriate time (in her state, 180 days) and the Supreme Court not only said she lost her right to sue after that period of time, but she also lost her award of back pay. The problem is, of course, that she didn't even realize that she was getting paid less than her male peers until after the time period had expired. Furthermore an initial pay discrimination decision can compound over time and cause an extreme disparity after years in the workforce.
Thankfully, there's legislation that that has been proposed in both the House and the Senate called the The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (the Senate is expected to vote on a version of the bill next week) that would, among other things would allow the time period to be counted from the last paycheck and not from the time the pay decision was made and take pension payments into account. Other versions of the bill attempt to increase pay transparency in ways that would still protect privacy.
My main fear with pay discrimination is that we've been locked in this kind of pay gap for decades. People are beginning to think that there's nothing that can be done, that that's just the way things are. The simple fact of the matter is that there are many reasons why women make less money than men, and it isn't as straightforward as the blatant sexism that Ledbetter experienced. (And when I saw her testify before George Miller's committee last year she told some stories that were truly terrifying.)
- Women tend not to ask for more money or don't ask for as much as men. Generally, they're more cautious about negotiating their salaries.
- Promotions tend to be more infrequent for women, sometimes due to taking time off for child bearing or child care.
- Women who don't have higher education tend to fill lower paying jobs (hairdresser, administration) than men without higher education do (construction work, auto mechanic).
- Women wait for evaluations with specific guidelines and expectations they might exceed before asking for a raise, while men tend to ask for more when they feel they "deserve" it.
- The subtle sexism that men who network with each other in a personal way by talking about sports or dating. Women tend not to be part of those conversations as often.
Young women in colleges especially don't tend to think of pay discrimination in such ways. College is an environment where the guidelines are pretty clear, and young women tend to make up the ranks of the highest-achieving students. Young women tend to assume, as I did, that their hard work would earn them the fair pay they deserved. It's more complicated than that.
UPDATE: Here's the piece I wrote for TAP last year about the Ledbetter case.