By Elvina Nawaguna
WASHINGTON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - U.S. women's paychecks will not catch up to men's for another 40 years at the current rate of improvement, experts say, a situation U.S. president Barack Obama highlighted in his State of the Union address, calling for policy changes he hopes will close the gap sooner.
"A woman deserves equal pay for equal work," Obama said in his address on Tuesday. "It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode."
Women who work full time make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That disparity has pushed more women into poverty despite higher educational levels, according to labor experts and women's rights advocates.
The gender pay gap narrowed greatly between the 1960s and 1990s, but the momentum has slowed. At the current rate, it is expected to close by 2056.
"It's really tied to the fact that our current workplace policies haven't been updated to reflect the fact that the workplace has changed," said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center.
Women comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce according to U.S. Labor Department data. Women are also the sole or primary breadwinners for about 40 percent of U.S. households with children below 18, according to the Pew Research Center.
Obama is pushing Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, a Senate bill that would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who share salary information with co-workers. It also would require employers to show that any pay discrepancies are tied to job performance, not gender.
Women's labor rights advocates see that bill as important for women to combat pay discrimination and win higher wages. Many private employers prohibit employees from sharing information about what they earn.
"I think it's going to take an all out attack on the outdated policies that we have," Graves said.
Obama is also pushing for more favorable workplace policies such as paid work leave, minimum wage increases and greater access to pre-K education. These policies are popular with women, many of whom must balance full-time jobs with domestic duties, and often have to take time off to tend to sick children or family.
"Don't punish people for looking after their families," said
Ariane Hegewisch, study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "If you look at who is poor and who is likely to remain poor, women are the majority."
The Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates that the poverty rate for working women would be cut in half if women earned as much as men.
The pay gap appears narrower in lower-wage jobs than in higher wage jobs, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. But she noted that the reason is not because women are doing better, but because men in lower wage jobs are doing worse.
"That's not the kind of improvement women want," Shierholz said. "If you could solve inequality overall, you'd have helped a lot of women."