STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Equal pay for women has been on President Obama's agenda from the very start. The very first bill that he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. It was named after a woman who fought for equal pay after finding that her male coworkers doing the same job at a Goodyear Tire plant in Alabama were getting paid a lot more.
There is still a significant pay gap. Women working fulltime still earn on average $.77 to a man's dollar.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on another bill in Congress that aims to change this.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Part of the pay gap is because more women than men take time off for child care. An even bigger part is because of occupational segregation: Women tend to work in lower-paying fields. Now, a lot of women's groups see this as a vestige of discrimination. But even when economists control for it, there's still a gender gap, anywhere from around a nickel to a dime on the dollar.
Ilene Lang with the women's research group Catalyst recently looked at MBA graduates.
Ms. ILENE LANG (President, CEO, Catalyst): From their very first job after getting their MBA degree, women made less money than men. On average, they were paid $4,600 less than men.
LUDDEN: And the findings held, even when those studied had no children. For Lang, this says that decades-old stereotypes persist.
Ms. LANG: There are assumptions that women don't care about money, which is crazy. There are assumptions that women will always have men who will take care of them, that women will get married, have children and drop out of the labor force. All those assumptions are just not true.
LUDDEN: The pay gap has narrowed since Congress first passed the Equal Pay Act back in 1963. But economists say that's largely because men's wages fell or were flat. Today, the recession has turned more women than ever into primary breadwinners.
As President Obama has noted, the pay disparity means they're losing hundreds of thousands of dollars over a career.
President BARACK OBAMA: It's about parents who find themselves with less money for tuition and child care, couples who wind up with less to retire on, households where one breadwinner is paid less than she deserves. It's the difference between affording the mortgage or not.
LUDDEN: The Paycheck Fairness Act would make it easier to prove gender discrimination and would toughen penalties. It would also try to erode what advocates say is a paralyzing secrecy around salaries: The bill would ban companies from retaliating if workers talk to each other about pay. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro told a Senate hearing last month that Lilly Ledbetter's case only came about because someone left an anonymous note on her windshield.
Representative ROSA DELAURO (Democrat, Connecticut): Just ask Lilly Ledbetter how much sooner she could have found out that she was being discriminated against had this protection been in place.
LUDDEN: Economist Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress told lawmakers the pay gap grows over time. Research shows women are less likely than men to negotiate for a higher salary. And then...
Ms. HEATHER BOUSHEY (Economist, Center for American Progress): One of the things that happens as a woman goes through her career is that you're asked at every job: Well, how much did you make at your last job? And then that exacerbates the pay gap.
LUDDEN: But critics worry the bill would encourage a surge of unfounded class-action lawsuits. Labor and employment lawyer Jane McFetridge said small businesses would also find the new requirements cumbersome. For example, they'd have to show that paying a man more than a woman for the same job was a business necessity.
Ms. JANE MCFETRIDGE (Attorney, Jackson Lewis LLP, Chicago): Do we want the government deciding what is business necessity? Isn't that for the business owner to decide?
LUDDEN: Whether or not the Paycheck Fairness Act becomes law, the Obama administration plans to crack down. Labor agencies, which saw their budgets shrink under the Bush administration, are getting a new infusion of staff and money. Pay equity consultant Tom McMullen says companies should prepare.
Mr. TOM MCMULLEN (Pay Equity Consultant, Hay Group): They'd better get their foundation right soon, because I think that there's a new wind blowing in Washington that this is on their radar screen.
LUDDEN: A new task force will coordinate enforcement. It plans an education campaign to make sure companies know equal work means equal pay.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.