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Heitkamp: After 55 years, we're still fighting for equal wages

Heidi Heitkamp

When I was younger, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. That may not sound like a big deal, but at the time, I was laughed at for making such a statement. When I was growing up, there weren't many female lawyers, and there were few women in law school. But the naysayers and preconceived notions about what careers women could or couldn't have didn't deter me. I went to law school and became a lawyer.

Today, the statistics are different — and for the better. In 2016, women outnumbered men in law school for the first time, according to the American Bar Association. And in 2017, more women were enrolled in medical school than men for the first time, according to the Association of Medical Colleges.

Women have more opportunities and are harnessing those opportunities more than ever before. And it's not just helping them—it's also helping their families. Fifty-five years ago, on June 10, 1963, the Equal Pay Act was signed into law to guarantee equal pay for men and women for the same work. The Equal Pay Act was about enabling women to take charge of their lives so they could support their families, and in turn, make families more financially stable while boosting our economy.

We have seen the great strides women have made in the workplace over the past several decades — I'm a testament to that as I'm now one of 23 women in the U.S. Senate. Women are leading in the workforce in so many professions — and those numbers only continue to grow. But we still have more progress to make. Our work isn't done.

Even with the strides made over so many decades, on average, North Dakota women still make 74 percent of what men make for the same work — the fifth worst pay gap in the country. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, in the U.S., half of all households with children under 18 years old have a mother who is the breadwinner — reinforcing that equal pay, or the lack thereof, impacts families. At the same time, almost half of North Dakota's private-sector workforce cannot earn a single paid sick day — and only about a third are eligible for or can afford paid leave, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. How can women effectively help support their families under such conditions?

Getting a fair salary is a family issue — and we need to treat it that way. By continuing to short-change millions of mothers and daughters in the workplace, employers are also short-changing working families, who could use full salaries to pay the bills, afford childcare and health care, and provide high-quality education for their kids.

There are actions Congress can and should take to address these challenges to help truly guarantee that women and families get the equal pay they deserve. I've been fighting to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to help close the startling wage gap between men and women, so our daughters don't have to continue to fight for these rights — they will already have them. Yet this needed bill continues to get blocked by Republicans in Congress.

And I'm working to pass my FAMILY Act which would create a federal paid family and medical leave policy so caregivers, mothers, fathers and adoptive parents can care for a newborn or an ailing parent without worrying about losing their jobs. My bill would help close the wage gap by making sure women don't have to choose between their jobs and their families.

We also need to keep striving to have women leading in every industry and sector — including more women in the U.S. Senate and in public service. Our voices and perspectives matter and we make a difference.

Without action, the wage gap and the burden on working families will remain. It's up to us to build on the Equal Pay Act, which opened the door for women in the workplace. Now, we need to keep going until we kick that door down so women and families get the fair pay they deserve.

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